A high percentage of the congressional Boating Caucus will come up for reelection in November: 111 members of the U.S. House of representatives (81 Republicans and 30 Democrats) and 24 members of the U.S. Senate (10 Republicans and 14 Democrats). A number of other senators up for re-election, including Florida Democrat Bill Nelson, do not join caucuses but are considered friends of the industry.
“This is a bipartisan caucus because when it comes to boating, there are no political divides,” says Nicole Vasilaros, senior vice president of government relations and legal affairs for the National Marine Manufacturers Association. Compared to such issues as tax reform, healthcare and women’s reproductive rights, the issue of boating makes members of Congress downright nostalgic.
“Boating on our beautiful Great Lakes and waterways is part of my family’s life,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat from Michigan, told Soundings Trade Only. She calls the recreational marine industry the lifeblood of her state’s coastal and boatbuilding communities.
Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat and Boating Caucus member, also notes the importance of boating in his state to outdoor recreation.
“As a child, my family spent summers on the lake, and it was a wonderful tradition I passed on to my children,” he says.
While Stabenow and Manchin both led in the polls as of early September, the loss of key boating-industry supporters in November’s midterm elections could threaten bills the industry worked hard to get on the legislative docket. Boating Caucus co-chairs Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Indiana, and Rep. Tom McArthur, R-N.J., were both trailing in the polls at press time. Others in the Caucus are facing uncertain outcomes in the election.
Legislation currently in play includes the Modern Fish Act, an E-15 bill requiring labels at gas pumps and the Water Resources Development Act, which would affect waterway infrastructure. “Senator Nelson has been the lead co-sponsor of the Modern Fish Act,” says Vasilaros, who calls Nelson a “champion” of the industry. “Without him, the Modern Fish Act and WRDA would not have gotten this far. Sen. Manchin was also involved in the Modern Fish Act. A number of the senators have had a significant role in advancing our legislative agenda.”
Stabenow and Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, have been addressing invasive species in the Great Lakes, while Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-North Dakota, has opposed the Trump administration’s tariffs on materials that boatbuilders use. Nelson and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, have also been pushing back against the tariffs in public forums, often citing the impact to their states’ boating industries.
Vasilaros says the NMMA never endorses or sends political action committee money to an individual candidate, but rather tries to find a mixed group of allies on issues impacting the boating indiustry. The association has seen every election change the Boating Caucus membership. NMMA then attempts to recruit new members from both parties.
“There’s always some turnover, so we look for opportunities for new members,” Vasilaros says. “Depending on party affiliation, they tend to favor different legislative issues, so some might be more supportive, for instance, on the ethanol issue than free trade.”
While the House races will affect Boating Caucus membership, Vasilaros says, the Senate races are arguably more important. “In the Senate, every member matters,” Vasilaros says. “One senator can make a real difference. It’s important to have senators who identify with those issues that we support.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2018 issue.