Incoming ASA President Frank Nisonger noted in my interview with him here, that next month’s ASA Convention in Washington is nicely timed to give ASA members an opportunity to descend en masse on Capitol Hill to give federal officials an earful about issues that concern them.
This emphasis on political action brings back memories of a previous push for greater involvement in government affairs by ASA. It was the subject of a cover story I wrote for this magazine way back in October 1983, headlined “Government Affairs Come Alive At ASA.” That article grew out of a three-day (as best I recall) lobbying excursion to Washington in which I accompanied ASA’s leaders and its lobbyists (including Patrick O’Connor, who remains ASA’s Washington connection to date), on rounds of meetings with members of Congress, their staffs and various other federal movers and shakers.
ASA’s main concerns way back then were legislation in the works known as PUHCA, which would have made it easier for utilities to market water heaters and other PHC products, as well as reform of multiemployer pension plans. The PUHCA issue was eventually resolved more or less to ASA’s satisfaction, while pension plan reform never was quite achieved but has since faded in priority.
Some things never change, however, and I’d like to share an excerpt from that 1983 article that is as relevant today as back then:
(Lobbyists) must establish friendly personal and working relationships with the people who run our government. No, I’m not referring to the elected officials who grab all the headlines, though it never hurts to be buddies with them. More important is to connect with their aides and advisors, appointment secretaries, congressional committee and subcommittee staffers, federal bureaucrats and other players generally unknown to the outside world … These are the people who draft legislation and assign it priority; who decide who gets a piece of decision makers’ time; and who will talk straight about matters that their bosses dare only euphemize when appearing on the evening news.
On our 1983 trip we had some face time with U.S. Senators Richard Lugar (R-IN), who is still around, and Don Nickles (R-OK), who is not. Those meetings made for cool celebrity gazing but were not nearly as interesting as sessions with behind-the-scenes people just described.
Which leads to the most noteworthy point I wish to make with this commentary. It has to do with a realization that only began to take shape during that 1983 ASA lobbying blitz.
As my career progressed, I would make numerous other trips to Washington to cover stories pertaining to government affairs, especially during the lead-free and low-flow plumbing initiatives, and while serving a stint as president of the Construction Writers Association. I’ve attended congressional hearings, interviewed government VIPs, listened to speeches by dozens of gasbags and schmoozed at countless cocktail parties where I conversed with bureaucrats ranking high, low and in the middle of the Washington pecking order. After all of those encounters, something notable stands out in my mind.
I cannot recall ever once hearing any of those Washington muckety-mucks ask my opinion of anything, or what my readers might think about issues that impinged upon their businesses. Granted, in many cases they already knew where we stood. Still, I would feel less cynical about the people who run our government if I could remember at least one among the hundreds that I’ve met who didn’t feel he or she knew everything worth knowing. Or, who could overcome the inevitable arrogance bred of power to the point where they could at least pretend to be interested in someone else’s point of view.
This leads to one more excerpt from that 1983 article, in which I wrote:
The greatest virtue of our political system is that it is accessible to practically every interest group. But there is a catch: interested parties must be able to marshal enough forces and be aggressive enough to fight their way into the corridors of power. Anyone too squeamish to join the fray is likely to be stepped upon; and anyone who expects our political leaders to do the right thing out of moral conviction probably owns stock in the Brooklyn Bridge.
This is why ASA’s leadership is calling for a show of force in Washington. Their experience coincides with mine in understanding that the muckety-mucks won’t listen unless you force yourself to be heard.