A House United

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Michael Verdon

Michael Verdon

The Congressional Boating Caucus didn’t fare too well in the November midterm elections. The caucus comprises 123 members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, who tend quite happily to put politics aside to support boating. But in the recent election, the group lost 30 members, including three of its four co-chairs.

That’s a big hit for marine trade associations that have spent time recruiting and informing the members about the issues that most impact boating. But it’s an even bigger blow for the industry. Though we may not see it, we all benefit from legislation that funds or regulates dredging, water access, Coast Guard safety programs, waterfront development, E15 use, emissions regulations, permits and a dozen other programs that have some bearing on boating.

“This year has seen the biggest change in Congress since 2010, with an unprecedented wave of retirements of our caucus members,” Nicole Vasilaros, NMMA senior vice president of government and legal affairs, told me a few days after the election. “We had some big losses, but we’ll also see a number of immediate replacements to the caucus.”

Vasilaros estimates that 15 senators and representatives will join the caucus immediately, with other potential recruits being at least year away, since it usually takes that long for members of Congress to get to know our associations and the industry.

In the meantime, there’s work to be done. I go to the American Boating Congress every year, and I write about the issues, but I’m still ignorant of the machinations of the legislative process. I have no clue about the horse-trading it takes to get a bill passed. An Otto von Bismarck quote comes to mind: If you like laws and sausages, you should never watch either one being made.

What I did learn from Vasilaros, however, is that a lame-duck Congress is anything but what the name implies. It’s actually a frantic two months on Capitol Hill, when politicians race to get bills passed before the new Congress sits in January. If a bill isn’t signed into law by the end of this year, the process starts again.

Vasilaros says four key industry-sponsored pieces of legislation are almost in the “end zone,” which means being passed by Congress and signed into law by President Trump. The Coast Guard Reauthorization Act, with regulations on flares, engine cutoff devices, vessel registration and other regulatory issues, has an “excellent” chance of passing, Vasilaros says. It is first on the Senate’s agenda when the lame duck reconvenes. She’s also confident about the passage of the Outdoor Recreation Satellite Account, which puts an official government stamp on data about recreational boating’s economic impact.

The Lands Package, which contains provisions on access and other boating issues, could pass but might be stalled by the debate over funding for President Trump’s border wall. The wall, which will dominate political coverage in the weeks ahead, could lead to no budget being signed. That could throw the Lands Package and ORSA into turmoil.

The Modern Fish Act also could be a casualty. The NMMA and our sportfishing associations have for years been pushing hard to get this bill passed. Now it’s a so-close-yet-so-far scenario.

Sponsor Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) was involved in a recount of votes in the Florida senate race after the election, which was consuming most of his time. “This is the most promising chance we’ve had in a decade,” Vasilaros says. “But it’s tricky right now because of the recount. To get it across the finish line will still require some maneuvering.”

That’s where you come in. I’m generally adverse to pushing politics, but this is activism. Our industry is largely seen as bipartisan by members of Congress, and the Boating Caucus has been around long enough to have gained respect on both sides of the aisle. But it’s time the industry became a house united and started reaching out to Congress about issues that impact our businesses.

There might be some justifiable eye-rolling here to my pontificating. But Vasilaros says hearing from constituents, especially ones with marine businesses, has a much bigger impact on congressional members than calls from lobbyists. Forget that you’re too busy (that’s a given) or don’t believe your voice matters (read below).

“It’s huge for these senators and representatives to hear directly from business owners from their districts,” Vasilaros says. “What rises to the top of their agendas is hearing from the members back home.”

Advocacy across the industry has improved over the last five years, Vasilaros says, but everyone can ratchet up pressure on Congress to pass boating-friendly legislation without using too much time, with an email or tweet. Recently, we’ve seen boatbuilders speak out about the impact of tariffs on their businesses. The national public relations impact has been significant.

Boating United, a grassroots lobbying effort with nearly 30,000 members, also can be an effective tool. To get on the list, text the word “Boat” to 50457. It will keep you in the loop regarding issues that impact our industry, and you can then choose whether you want to contact your legislator.

This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue.

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