These days, any discussion of Congress calls forth words such as deadlock, standstill, lack of movement. But it’s for just that reason that the American Boating Congress May 5-7 in Washington, D.C., might be one of the most productive in years, planners say.
“As just a cautionary note to those who say that Congress is not doing anything, so there is no reason to attend ABC, nothing could be further from the truth,” says Jeff Gabriel, the National Marine Manufacturers Association’s legislative counsel.
“It’s true this Congress is not working under what we’d consider regular order … but to say they’re not doing anything is really a misnomer. It’s very shortsighted for anyone not to take what’s going on here seriously. They are working on a whole host of things, and there are some bills working their way through that will affect the economy and the boating community.”
It’s a midterm election year, and the perception that Congress has done so little — earning it a worse-than-10-percent approval rating — is not lost on lawmakers. That could make it a more productive year than most, says Larry Innis, who oversees legislative affairs for the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas.
“Congress this year is starting to work more together than in prior years,” Innis says. “We have been hearing about bipartisanship kind of coming back and that they’re working to come up with solutions. So this is a very interesting year.”
After a year of government shutdowns, debt-ceiling debates and sequestration, Democrats and Republicans now seem to be trying to create an impression among voters that they are making inroads on the few issues on which they can find common ground.
A couple of issues on which there are signs of movement “are very pertinent to the boating industry,” says Nicole Vasilaros, director of regulatory and legal affairs for the NMMA. “Two of our big issues happen to be things Congress is coalescing around, so it’s even more important for members to come to ABC and support that,” she says.
One issue that has gotten a lot of attention is revision or repeal of the Renewable Fuel Standard, which requires that a progressively increasing amount of ethanol be blended into the fuel supply. The boating industry and others are arguing that the “blend wall,” or the amount of ethanol feasible in the fuel supply, has already been hit. A host of bills in Congress and in the Senate addressing the issue have, by and large, seen bipartisan support.
Other issues include the Water Resources Development Act, which funds dredging projects, and the Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund, which allocates money for things such as municipal launch ramps.
One of the rallying points for the boating industry has been the economic impact of recreational spending, Vasilaros says. “We are going through a rebranding that recreational boating is not just about having fun on the water, it’s about jobs and about economic impact. We are really taking that issue to Congress and saying they need to take recreational boating seriously because of [its] significant economic impact.”
ABC is the event that gives the industry a collective voice on Capitol Hill, she says. “Jeff and I are here 365 days a year, but this is really the time that the industry speaks with one voice. Members of Congress can hear from Jeff and I all day long, but who they want and need to hear from are their constituents.”
Before heading to ABC, Bob Menne, the president of pontoon boat maker Premier Marine, meets with staff and dealers to discuss which three or four items are most important to them.
“Then when we go to the Hill, we let them know how many people live and work in this industry, not just as manufacturers but dealers, people in aftermarkets, resorts, cabins,” Menne says.
MRAA president Matt Gruhn says he hears every excuse in the book for staying home.
“There’s all kinds of reasons why this is not an ideal or convenient time. The timing is tough, especially for dealers just putting boats in the water for the first time or docks in the water,” Gruhn says.
“It’s expensive because D.C. is expensive, and it’s an intimidating concept to go there and feel like you as an individual are going to make a difference. I get it. But the reality is that hundreds, if not thousands of associations throughout the country do this. We can’t allow our needs and boaters’ needs to go without being voiced. We need to talk to the legislators and regulators and talk about why our needs are important not just to boating, but to the economy and to businesses.”
An industrywide event
As of early April there were 38 co-hosts for ABC, already more than ever before. The NMMA restructured the format a few years ago to allow all sorts of entities to serve as co-hosts, a move that has helped boost interest among stakeholders other than manufacturers, Innis says.
“Now it’s everybody, not just manufacturers. It’s dealers, distributors, state associations, boatyards, marinas — it’s really a great group of people that are coming. I’m really excited about that. The more, the merrier because we are faced with many issues. If we’re for an issue, there’s always somebody against it. The ethanol producers and manufacturers are having a big conference, with entertainment such as Led Zeppelin.”
“This is the third year the NMMA has offered opportunities for co-hosts,” says Lauren Dunn, an NMMA spokeswoman, which helps other groups “feel some ownership over the event. You’re seeing that reflected in the increasing number of co-hosts and attendees. It seems that work is really paying off and that message that ABC is really important, and not just for our members.”
The NMMA developed a smartphone app this year — sort of “an ABC in your pocket,” Dunn says. “So when people go to the Hill they’ll have talking points, a map of the Hill, scheduled meetings right there. We really wanted to make it as easy as possible for folks and eliminate any nervousness or concern. It’s just another tool to make this event as effortless as possible for people who have already made a great effort by coming in the first place.”
An attendee reception — an evening cruise along the Potomac River on Virginia’s Jewel — will take place on May 5, the opening day of ABC, Dunn says. “Opening up that Monday night B2B event was a direct response to feedback we got.”
There will be two days of meetings this year instead of one.
“Tuesday and Wednesday, folks have opportunities on two days to go to the Hill instead of trying to pack everything into one afternoon,” Dunn says. “That was also a change made in response to attendee feedback.”
ABC is more than the Capitol Hill visits. “It’s nice for the community to get together and talk among themselves, too,” Gabriel says. “We’re also going to have panel discussions about issues that affect certain regions, like dredging. And it’s nice to have everyone together for the Monday-night B2B boat ride.”
That relationship building with decision makers is important not only at the event, but also throughout the year, says Gordon Connell, executive director of the American Boat Builders and Repairers Association.
“It’s always important to take the opportunity that ABC offers to build relationships, even in an election year like 2014,” Connell says. “You visit them when their attention is on the marine industry, and that is an excellent first step that could and should be followed up in district meetings when those elected officials come home. ABC offers … that opportunity to meet with them and their staffs and identify areas the industry might need help with. It’s just as important to then follow that up with meetings after.”
Also important, Connell says, is to ask those members of Congress to visit business owners where they do business — “having some type of follow-up where you try to meet with them in your district or invite them to your company or some type of regional trade association meeting.” Meeting with them at ABC “is really just one piece of the puzzle,” he says.
This year’s main message for ABBRA involves the increasingly stringent enforcement of air and water quality regulations, Connell says. “What we’re looking for this year, and always, is a more reasonable, balanced approach to the environmental regulations that we are burdened by. We don’t have a lot of hope to accomplish much this year other than relationship building because I don’t think Congress will do much to address environmental air and water regulations.”
Connell says some of his members have for the last couple of years been hit hard by some air quality regulations that hadn’t previously been enforced.
“I don’t think elected officials are aware of what businesses face on a day-to-day basis and what EPA tackles,” Connell says. Instead of asking to change laws, the group will ask for more cooperation and communication on what they decide to focus on. “The owners have no problem with compliance. They’re going to comply based on what they know is the practice in our industry. If the law says something and it wasn’t enforced for the last 10 years, and they start enforcement, we just ask for reasonable communication with entities on what their particular focus is.”
Ethanol is something on everyone’s mind entering this year’s ABC.
“We’re at an important juncture with the conversation around ethanol,” Gruhn says. “I think we need to get that message out because at this point they’re asking questions. It seems like for once we’ve got an opportunity to make an impact on this topic.”
“The campaign to educate members of Congress and media on the Renewable Fuel Act has been ongoing all year, but it has really gained traction in the last two months, if you will,” Vasilaros says.
Amending or repealing the RFS is the NMMA’s top priority, Vasilaros says. “There’s a little nuance this year. We’re really proposing signatures on the House side for HR 1462, which is Rep. Goodlatte’s reform bill. We need 219 members of Congress on the House side to sign as co-sponsors on that bill, so we’ll be doing a big push on the House side.”
The NMMA also expects more legislation to be dropped on the Senate side regarding RFS reform, joining a host of other bills that have been introduced. “These are concrete things at ABC we’re hoping to engage members with this year.”
The Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund is also on the MRAA and NMMA radars. That federal fund is a small portion of a larger highway bill that is up for reauthorization when it expires at the end of September, Vasilaros says. A small percentage of the amount spent on boat fuel is put into the trust fund and funneled back to states for projects such as boat ramp improvements and additions, sea grass restoration and funding for fish hatcheries.
Reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act also has gained traction in Congress, with the Morris-Deal Commission report outlining a vision for managing America’s saltwater recreational fisheries.
“I think we’re going to see consensus from both the Democratic and Republican staffs to put good stuff in the bill, and I’m really pleased to see that because we really want to avoid any partisanship,” says Center for Coastal Conservation president Jeff Angers, who also sits on the commission’s steering committee.
Angers likens the act’s reauthorization to large packages such as the 2014 farm bill, which passed early this year, or WRDA, the Water Resources Development Act of 2013. Both bills were dense and somewhat controversial, and they sought to placate people who had many opposing points of view.
“Having people at ABC who care about the Magnuson-Stevens Act, even though it might not be passed this year, is important because members of Congress are listening to stakeholders now,” Gabriel says. “If you don’t come and meet with [them] now and put bugs in their ears about what you want to see in regard to recreational fishing, you’re missing the boat.”
Other issues include the Business Activity Tax Simplification Act, dredging, the second-home mortgage interest deduction and a push for a waiver from OSHA fines if marinas are in the process of compliance, Innis says.
“One of the key takeaways we hope people leave with is that government relations with boating matters, and it matters to them,” Dunn says. “It affects them, and their businesses and their families year round. We’re also encouraging them to take a look at some of the tools we’ve got to help them stay fresh and stay focused on government relations when they’re not here.”
Those include Boating United, a new NMMA advocacy platform that helps facilitate emails to members of Congress, Dunn says. “Some of the legislative momentum we’ve seen has absolutely been encouraging, and we want to encourage members to use that even when they’re not here.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue.