CAPITOL LOOKOUT: If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu

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The raw power of grassroots lobbying has been on full display these last few weeks as the National Rifle Association and its 4 million members have pulled out all the stops to water down legislation to curb gun violence. No matter how the congressional debate finally ends up, there is no doubt that the NRA is an association that is willing to unfurl its sails to protect the lifestyle of its members.

Fortunately, recreational boating doesn’t face a legislative landscape of this magnitude — unless, of course, you believe that the federal government’s decision to allow E15 into the nation’s fuel supply is going to wreak havoc on boat engines. In that case, you might well believe that either your lifestyle or that substantial investment in fiberglass you have sitting out in the water is at risk.

Whether E15 comes to pass or not, recreational boating has faced and overcome a number of threats from our nation’s capital over the years, from a proposed weekend boating ban to the “user fee tax,” luxury tax and diesel fuel taxes of the 1980s and ’90s. For the most part, these taxes were designed to soak the perceived rich. The fact is that they had the opposite effect. Thousands of jobs were lost in an industry that is so discretionary that it gets pneumonia every time the government looks its way.

As the cherry blossoms fade away and the boating industry’s annual rite of spring, the American Boating Congress, comes to town, there are some important lobbying lessons that can be learned from other industries that are year-round players in the Washington merry-go-round.

There’s an old saying in our nation’s capital: “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”

I hate to admit it, but the sad truth is that money often speaks louder than words here in Washington, D.C. Don’t believe me? Deep Throat wasn’t kidding when he told Bob Woodward to “follow the money.”

The good news is that the boating industry has full-time representation in our nation’s capital. This was not always the case. Since the mid-1980s, the NMMA has built up a Washington, D.C.-based government relations operation with a modest-sized political action committee that spent $118,775 during the 2012 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (www.opensecrets.org). Other maritime entities raised and spent varying amounts, including $154,015 by the American Waterways Operators, $155,094 by the Cruise Lines International Association, $78,258 by Brunswick Corp. and $59,575 by the Recreational Fishing Alliance.

Lagging far behind were the American Sportfishing Association, which spent $9,603; the Fishing Vessel Owners Association, at $7,309; the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas, at $2,520; and BoatUS, which, although it has a political action committee, has not contributed any money to support or oppose candidates for public office since 2004, according to both opensecrets.org and www.fec.gov.

Meanwhile, the NRA and its affiliates spent more than $17 million. Other large industry associations were also big spenders:

• National Beer Wholesalers Association: $3.38 million

• National Auto Dealers Association: $3 million

• American Bankers Association: $2.73 million

• Credit Union National Association: $2.48 million

Fortunately, as they say, money isn’t everything. An association’s ability to turn out the grass roots is also important. Convincing a few hundred members of the boating industry to leave their businesses and troop up to Capitol Hill once a year for face-to-face meetings with their elected representatives during ABC is no small task. Having participated in these gatherings on and off since they were first held back in the 1980s, I am glad to see that there appears to be renewed energy behind this year’s ABC.

That said, a two-day meeting held once a year can only accomplish so much, particularly when your industry is so generally misunderstood by both politicians and the media, who can always be relied on to portray boating as little more than a recreation favored by wealthy fat cats and the idle rich. That’s why the lobbying effort is just as important for the other 363 days of the year.

Just last year, the first thing that the presiding chairman of a House subcommittee wanted to ask representatives of the boating industry was whether they thought there was a negative stigma associated with the marine industry and especially the word “yacht.” (I wrote about this last July.)

Many industries that are misunderstood on Capitol Hill or that find themselves in the cross hairs of Congress can alter these perceptions by ramping up their public relations operations and targeting the Capitol Hill community of politicians, staffers, federal employees and the media. All of these actors play a part in defining an industry and play a role in how that industry fares during the legislative process.

One way to change perceptions is by telling your story in your own words. Every week there are three independent newspapers that circulate on Capitol Hill that are chock full of ads designed to influence this community: Roll Call, Politico and The Hill.

During a recent week, these three papers included mostly full-page, but also some half-page ads from CTIA (America’s Wireless Companies); AARP; the Employment Policies Institute (against raising the minimum wage); the ASPCA; the Association of American Medical Colleges; the National Association of Chain Drug Stores; the Communications Workers of America; OXFAM; TechNet; the American Petroleum Institute; the Agriculture Council of America; Monsanto; and the financial behemoth Goldman Sachs.

Each of these ads is designed to inform and persuade. Although they are usually for or against a particular legislative proposal, some are simply an effort to introduce a particular interest group to the Capitol Hill community and let it know that they are serious players.

Here’s an idea. Boating could create a series of ads depicting the typical American boating family, including Fido, on a 16-foot boat with a headline that reads: Recreational Boating: It’s Not Called Yachting Anymore.

A comprehensive public relations campaign to change the perception that boating is yachting would be a smart strategic move for our industry, especially now. Everywhere you look, budgets are being squeezed and revenues are being sought. Sacred cows once thought immune from the congressional maw are now under the microscope and will be for the foreseeable future for as long as we have a mountain of debt.

Lastly, the marine industry needs to get serious about building its own grass-roots network, one that it can directly communicate with and unleash on Capitol Hill on a moment’s notice. With hundreds of thousands of names and email addresses in the Discover Boating database, recreational boating has an enormous advantage over most industries whose constituents are mostly consumers, rather than lifestyle participants. In many respects, boat owners are not unlike NRA members. One big difference: The NRA can harness hundreds of thousands of its members at the click of a mouse.

Don’t think this is the wave of the future? The chief executive of eBay, John Donahoe, on Sunday began emailing 40 million users of the company's online marketplace in an effort to defeat legislation pending in the U.S. Senate that gives states the power to compel retailers outside their borders to collect online sales tax. Currently, states can only require merchants with a physical presence within their borders to collect sales tax.

Michael Sciulla established boating’s first federal political action committee and testified more than 30 times on Capitol Hill during a 28-year career at BoatUS, where he managed the organization’s government relations and public affairs operations while also serving as editor of its 650,000-circulation flagship publication.

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