The presidential election has heightened the importance of the American Boating Congress, giving the marine industry the opportunity to get its message across to influential lawmakers at a crucial time.
“We want to make sure that the recreational boating industry’s voice is loud and united as we work together as a country to usher in a new administration and as we continue to press on regarding our top advocacy issues,” says National Marine Manufacturers Association president Thom Dammrich. “A strong contingent of boating advocates really makes a difference when it comes to small-business tax improvements, reforming the Renewable Fuel Standard and ensuring a strong economy for our industry and the 650,000 jobs it supports.”
The industry’s premier political and legislative event will be held May 9-11 at the Renaissance Washington, D.C., Downtown Hotel. The NMMA is working with about 37 co-hosts (two more than last year), including the Florida Yacht Brokers Association, the Association of Marina Industries, the American Sportfishing Association, the Center for Coastal Conservation, BoatUS, Soundings Trade Only and marine trades associations from Connecticut, Michigan, South Carolina, Virginia and other states and regions.
The NMMA anticipates an increase in attendance, but did not have specific numbers because registrations are being accepted until the event begins.
For the first time the event will feature two keynote speakers: Fox & Friends Weekend anchor Tucker Carlson and CNN commentator Paul Begala.
Both sides of the aisle will be represented with Carlson and Begala. “The two keynote speakers are veterans in the political world representing the Republican and Democratic parties,” says Nicole Vasilaros, vice president of federal and legal affairs for the National Marine Manufacturers Association. “It will be useful to hear directly from these experts and hear their forecasts. They have a healthy banter; this is not a debate, but will be done in tandem.”
Begala is a Democratic strategist, and he is a political contributor for CNN. He appears frequently on “The Situation Room” and other CNN programming. Begala was a chief strategist for the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign.
Carlson is editor-in-chief of The Daily Caller, a political news website. A conservative pundit, he formerly co-hosted CNN’s “Crossfire” and MSNBC’s “Tucker.” Other speakers include U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, R-Ga.
Armed with a broader strategy to lobby lawmakers, the marine industry is poised to have one of its most effective American Boating Congress events in its history, says Vasilaros. Teaming a variety of attendees from the same geographic region to bring forth state-based issues should help the marine industry connect with a wider range of lawmakers, says Vasilaros.
“Attendees have always tried to see their own member of Congress when in town,” says Vasilaros. “This year, by group, they will meet with nearby congressional representatives, as well. Also, with groups being formed with larger interests, there is a greater chance to meet both of your senators.”
Industry members want to meet lawmakers themselves, but their schedules are tight, she says. “The more constituents and interests in the same meetings, the increased likelihood we may actually see the elected official,“ says Vasilaros.
Marine leaders have worked for the past few years to explain to lawmakers that the industry consists of a “marine ecosystem” — not just manufacturers, but dealers, fishing groups, consumers and trade organizations, Vasilaros says. “With more people and a greater diversity of people, the more impactful our message will be.”
Event organizers continue to collaborate with other industry organizations to strengthen marine’s overall voice, says Vasilaros. “We try every year to make this a more comprehensive event,” she says, pointing out that the American Sportfishing Association will hold its government affairs committee meeting during ABC. “We’re trying to get other industry trade associations to hold their government relations meetings at ABC. It is all an effort to make sure we reach the broadest audience for greater impact on Capitol Hill.”
ABC organizers began holding issue briefings last year. A panel of experts and interested parties lead these 30-minute discussions. “The briefings really get into the weeds of the issue and identify what participants can say to have an influence with lawmakers,” says Vasilaros. “They prepare people to engage on the topic.”
There are nine issue briefings this year: recreational fishing, ethanol, protecting boater (water) access, the Water Resources Development Act, trade, deferred importation, invasive species, hot topics by state and work force development.
The latter two are new, says Vasilaros.
Work force development will focus on the challenges of growing a skilled employee base at the manufacturer, dealer and repair levels.
“We’re trying to work with existing coalitions that are promoting career and technical education to make sure marine is getting the resources that are out there,” says Vasilaros. “State issues and federal programs can have impact; we’re excited to delve into the landscape in the states to see how those community and technical schools can benefit the marine industry.”
The National Skills Coalition, which focuses on work force development issues and education programs, will be participating in the issue briefing’s panel discussion. “They have taken the lead,” says Vasilaros. “They will … identify federal programs and legislation and funding streams. They will bridge the gap between educational institutions, the employers in the industries and the workers themselves — they represent all three interests.”
In the state-by-state issue briefings, participants will take a look at specific issues pertinent to states. “You want to be able to take resources you gain from Capitol Hill back to your home state,” says Vasilaros. “A lot of the people coming are local marine trades groups and dealers, so we want to look at what is going on in their states.”
The Water Resources Development Act is up for reauthorization. Rather than a specific waterway, the industry will target funding for the WRDA study, in which Congress directed the Army Corps of Engineers to perform an assessment of the operations and maintenance needs of the nation’s waterways. “NMMA and our coalition partners, including the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway Association, want to make sure this bill examines how much is needed to maintain the waterway so that states can look for non-federal partners to assist in shouldering the burden,” says Vasilaros. “We want passage of WRDA, but we are particularly interested in the study to make sure we are aware of what the specific water needs are.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2016 issue.