Why Do We Go to the Hill?
Why Do We Go to the Hill?
the Board will discuss the merits of continuing
the SBC Legislative Conference.
Leading up to this year’s 14th annual SBC Legislative Conference in Washington, DC, I was asked by a few members why we as an association meet with our lawmakers. This is a legitimate question and one I am going to bring up to the Board of Directors to discuss at our next Open Quarterly Meeting in Madison this summer. To start this discussion, I thought I would offer my personal opinion, as well as some of the thoughts shared by those who attended this year’s conference.
SBCA is not your typical trade association. At its foundation is a focus on developing, sharing and promoting industry best practices with regard to engineering, design responsibilities, manufacturing processes and risk management. SBCA has focused on marketplace education through technical publications like BCSI and the Component Technology Workshop (CTW) presentations, to protect our industry’s best interests and limit our liability in the construction process. To that end, SBCA has traditionally concentrated its advocacy efforts on building officials, specifiers, framers and fire officials, not lawmakers.
However, in 2000, a small group of SBCA members traveled to DC to meet with lawmakers to talk about one specific issue: the softwood lumber trade dispute between the U.S. and Canada and the resulting countervailing duties (taxes) placed on Canadian lumber. Those duties were artificially driving up the cost of lumber in the U.S. and creating a competitive disadvantage for northern U.S. component manufacturers (CM) against Canadian CMs, who could produce trusses cheaper because of the duty-free lumber and ship them over the border. Over the next six years, those grassroots lobbying efforts, particularly through Dan Holland’s relationship with his Senator at the time, Trent Lott (R-MS), and Rick Parrino’s relationship with his Senator, Charles Grassley (R-IA), were instrumental in influencing the creation of the softwood lumber agreement currently in place.
While organizations like the National Association of Homebuilders (NAHB) and their local affiliates throw millions of dollars in member dues and contributions toward lobbying Congress and state legislatures, SBCA has refrained from participating in a “pay-to-play,” direct-lobbying approach. When you look at our limited financial resources, it doesn’t make a lot of sense for SBCA to do so. However, I can personally attest to the fact that money plays a definite role in the process.
When I first came to DC four years ago, I met with my lawmakers and enjoyed telling them about the issues that are most important to our industry. Over time, my relationship with their offices grew, and the next year, I met directly with my Congressman, Rep. John Fleming. After that meeting, he asked me for a contribution to his campaign, which I gladly gave. The next year, he visited our truss plant in Shreveport (which was covered in the June/July 2012 issue), and I found it was a great opportunity to show him how and why we do what we do and to better illustrate the issues we struggle with. After that tour, he asked for another contribution, which I gave again. The next year, he asked for even more money. I finally declined, and since then, my relationship with Rep. Fleming has cooled a bit.
On the flip side, several of our members who have come to DC over the years have succeeded in building strong relationships with their lawmakers without giving money. Rick is one example; another is Mike Karceski’s relationship with former 12-term Congressman Donald Manzullo (R-IL), who lost in 2012 after his congressional district was significantly altered through redistricting. Barry Dixon has a close relationship with his Representative, Ander Crenshaw (R-FL), and Joe Kannapell has a good time talking with his Representative, Robert Hurt (R-VA), every time he comes to DC. Contrary to my experience, these relationships and others didn’t require money to build, just the time commitment to repeatedly visit them during legislative conferences.
So, why do we as an association visit our nation’s capital, particularly when it seems like Congress doesn’t seem to be willing to do much? Partly, the answer is that there is much they can do to inadvertently hurt our business and our customers. On issues ranging from tax reform to housing finance, there are proposals floated by lawmakers that could put many of us out of business very quickly, and we have a responsibility to inform our lawmakers about those mostly unintended consequences. However, our visits to DC are more about personal relationship building.
Our members of Congress are the most well-connected individuals in our communities. When we need help with anything from economic development grants to flagrantly unfair OSHA citations, these are the people who we can turn to for help. The more connections we have in their offices, the better our chances of getting a problem resolved to our advantage.
In the end, it will be up to the Board to decide whether the industry is getting a high enough return on investment in holding a legislative conference each year. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this topic and for our discussion at the Board meeting in Madison.