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CAPITOL LOOKOUT: NMMA president delivers industry message to Congress

As President Obama was launching a series of speeches Wednesday, beginning at Illinois’ Knox College, highlighting how the rich have gotten richer since the turn of the century and the poor have gotten poorer, NMMA president Thom Dammrich was making a presentation in an ornate room on Capitol Hill about the struggling boating industry and the need for Congress to do no more harm.

Billed as a congressional briefing on the state of the recreational boating industry and its implications for the U.S. economy, Dammrich’s 30-minute program attracted about 30 Hill staffers and two members of the 120-member Congressional Boating Caucus, Reps. Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.) and Rob Wittman (R-Va.).

This was the first time in my memory that an NMMA president had gone to Capitol Hill to deliver a comprehensive briefing on the marine industry. Although Dammrich had invited the industry to attend, the only industry insiders I saw were Steve Colgate of the Offshore Sailing School and a few Washington-based boating and fishing association representatives.

Although the turnout of actual lawmakers was disappointing, lobbyists dating from the time of Ulysses S. Grant have known that the best way to get to a member of Congress is through his or her staff.

To grab the attention of an audience of non-boaters unfamiliar with the recreational boating industry, Dammrich delivered a PowerPoint presentation that focused on what the industry is and who boaters are, concluding with a brief overview of the issues facing the boating community.

I am sure that the assembled staffers were surprised to hear Dammrich say that the boating industry is not what it used to be, noting that new-boat sales amounted to about 400,000 units per year from 1965 to 1990, 300,000 units from 1992 to 2004 and that they hit rock bottom at 135,000 units following the onset of the Great Recession in 2009. New-boat sales, he pointed out, had indeed risen to about 167,000 units by the end of 2012.

That said, he made much of the fact that the ill-conceived and congressionally approved luxury tax of 1990 kicked the wind out of boat sales and that the industry always had to be on guard against the “law of unintended consequences” when it comes to legislation that is supposed to do one thing and ends up doing something else.

Those who survived the luxury tax debacle might remember that the “rich” simply stopped buying boats once the tax was enacted and that the tax revenues raised were little more than decimal dust. Instead of soaking the rich, the three-year tax sunk numerous boatbuilders and suppliers and threw thousands out of work.

But Dammrich’s speech was not all doom and gloom. He portrayed recreational boating as a solidly middle-class pastime enjoyed by 88 million Americans who go boating every year in some 12 million registered boats. To drive the point home he rattled off a number of statistics to demonstrate that boating was as American as apple pie, including the fact that 93 percent of the powerboats sold in the United States were made in America, that 95 percent of all boats are trailerable, that 97 percent of boat manufacturers are small businesses and that 81 percent of boaters have a household income of less than $100,000.

With the drumbeat for more good-paying jobs on the radar of every lawmaker, Dammrich noted that recreational boating is a significant industry employing 338,526 people in the United States in 34,833 businesses with a total economic impact of $121.5 billion. Boating even makes a positive contribution to our trade balance, to the tune of $274.5 million in 2012.

These figures seemed to perk up the audience, who posed a handful of thoughtful questions on ethanol, exports, the second-home deduction and the Wallop/Breaux Trust Fund.

Dammrich concluded his presentation with a slide that asked, “What does boating need?” The slide answered its own question, noting that boating needed a healthy and growing economy, rising consumer confidence, increases in consumer spending, job growth and a strong housing market.

Wouldn’t it be nice if Congress ever got its act together and actually developed solutions to the problems facing our country rather than playing politics all the time?

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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