You Don’t Need All the Answers to Dialog with Lawmakers - Best Practices
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You Don’t Need All the Answers to Dialog with Lawmakers

By Joanne Costin

Article Date: 10-01-2009
Copyright(C) 2009 Associated Equipment Distributors. All Rights Reserved.


Three AED members moved into the limelight on Capitol Hill after recognizing what a difference their voice makes.

While you tend to day-to-day business issues at your dealership, debates on issues such as health care, infrastructure investment, economic stimulus, environmental regulation and taxes seem to rage on endlessly in Washington and in your home state. What’s a dealer to do? How can one stay informed, involved and have their voice be heard by legislators? To answer these questions, we asked Christian Klein, AED’s vice president of government affairs, as well as three politically involved AED dealers about what it takes to stay on top and win in the legislative arena.

You don’t need to be a political activist to know that what goes on in Washington and in your state capital can help or harm your dealership in a dramatic fashion. One of the most important benefits of AED membership is to have a presence in Washington to oppose or support legislation on your behalf. Together, dealers’ collective voices are louder than they could be individually. Christian Klein has been AED’s man in Washington for more than 13 years, coming on board in 1996, and assuming his current VP role in 2003. Last March, AED moved to increase visibility in Washington and hired Daniel Fisher as AED’s director of government affairs and associate counsel.

Testifying Before Congress

The results of the investment appear to be paying off. AED has experienced increased success in getting its messages heard, with three members testifying before the House Small Business Committee in the past 18 months on issues important to dealers. In June of 2008, Dale Leppo, Chairman of Leppo Rents/Bobcat of Akron, testified before Congress to enact a “no strings attached” tax credit for individuals and couples who buy a primary residence before the end of 2008. The idea, proposed by AED, eventually became law and has since evolved into the popular $8,000 tax credit that is currently breathing life into the residential housing market.

In June 2009, Tim Watters, president and CEO of Hoffman Equipment Co. in Piscataway, N.J., briefed the House Small Business Committee on credit challenges confronting equipment distributors and their customers in the current economic environment.

Then in July 2009, Tom Kirchhoff, executive vice president and COO of Cleveland Brothers Equipment Co. Inc., in Harrisburg, Pa., reported to members of Congress that the uncertainty surrounding the federal highway program is contributing to unprecedented volatility in construction markets.

“We have found the House Small Business Committee to be a good forum for getting in front of Congress and getting them focused on our issues,” said Klein.

So how and why are certain dealers asked to testify before Congress? According to Klein several factors can come into play.

“In some cases, we are looking for a national spokesperson who can represent the industry; a recognized name,” explained Klein. As a former AED chairman and chairman of AED’s Government Affairs Committee, Dale Leppo was perfect for the role he played. As a Bobcat dealer, Leppo could also speak directly from his own experience about the impact the housing meltdown was having on his business.

“In other cases, the mantra, ‘all politics are local’ applies,” said Klein. “We try to bring in someone with a connection to a committee chairperson so there is a clear constituent relationship.” Watters is AED’s northeast region director, and his company’s distribution territory includes New York’s 10th congressional district, which is represented by House Small Business Committee Chairwoman Nydia Velázquez (D-NY). Velázquez also has a good relationship with Charlie Rangel (D-NY), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

Kirchhoff’s Caterpillar dealership has locations within Pennsylvania’s 5th congressional district, which is represented by Jason Altmire, who is a member of both the House Small Business Committee and the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Kirchhoff has also been an active member of AED’s Highway Infrastructure Task Force, which supports AED’s leadership in the highway reauthorization debate.

“I could be a witness at any of these hearings,” said Klein, “but our dealers can speak to how the legislation affects them at a local level. They can tell a local story, speaking from their own experience.”

The process of testifying before Congress can be intimidating. Part of Klein’s job is to ensure that AED members are prepared before a meeting with any legislators. For the Congressional hearings, the process involves both written and oral testimony, which is prepared by the Washington staff together with the dealer, as well as with input from the AED board. While the written testimony can be lengthy, the oral testimony is limited to five minutes. “You quickly realize how short five minutes is,” explained Klein. “You have to tell a story to do a good sales job.”

“As a former chairman of the board of AED, I had already learned how to stand up and address 1,000 of my closest friends, without stuttering and stumbling too much,” said Leppo. “And even with that behind me, it was still a little bit intimidating with the lights and cameras and the little buttons that are in front of you.”

“AED did a terrific job of preparing me with both with facts and figures for the written testimony as well as the oral testimony,” said Kirchhoff. “I really enjoyed the opportunity. It was empowering to feel genuine interest in what it was that we had to say.”

“One needn’t be an expert on the legislation to speak to politicians,” advised Klein. “All you need to speak about is what you know about: how your business would be affected by the legislation.”

As a first step, Leppo recommends attending AED’s Government Affairs conference held each spring. There, executives get a complete briefing on legislative issues, hear from members of Congress, senators and industry allies –and learn what AED is doing in Washington to further the interests of its members. The conference also reserves a half-day on Capitol Hill for AED members to meet with their own elected representatives and senators.

“At first it’s intimidating, said Leppo, “but eventually it becomes kind of fun, because you come to realize that most of them really believe that they are there to serve their constituents’ needs and they really do want to hear from people back home about what is going on and how things that are going on in Washington impact our business. They actually listen.”

AED makes it easier by providing handouts and talking points to members. “If you do go,” advised Leppo, “find a buddy who has been there before and can help you walk you through the ins and outs.”

“Christian advises us to pick the issues that are most important to us,” said Leppo, “so we can tell a story that will resonate with the person we are talking to.” Leppo has been very involved in increasing Section 179 expensing limits, a tax incentive for small business. “In our business, we sell small stuff, so Section 179 has been a huge deal for us on selling equipment at the end of the year,” said Leppo. “Each business has the issues that are most important to them. You don’t have to be involved in every issue.”

Kirchhoff has similar advice for fellow AED members. “First, understand the issue and the potential consequences or benefits that it has for your organization and industry. Then find an avenue through which you can connect with your representatives.”

Dealers who aren’t sure how to connect with their representatives can call Christian Klein or Daniel Fisher in AED’s Washington office or visit the AED Web site, under the government section. The Web site features several action centers to help members draft letters to their legislators, write an op/ed piece for their local newspaper, or draft an e-mail to their employees concerning certain issues.

“Dealers may wonder where to start,” said Kirchhoff, “but if they go to the AED Web site, they will truly see how easy it is.”

Both Kirchhoff and Leppo keep apprised of current legislative matters through a variety of sources including AED’s Washington Insights e-newsletter and Web site, local associations, manufacturers and local newspapers. They also take the opportunity to attend fly-ins and drive-ins sponsored by their associations.

Making a Difference

According to Kirchhoff, his experience before Congress helped him understand the whole process a lot better.

“I felt I was part of the process, and it is a huge process. “One or two calls or e-mails to a politician will not move the needle, but a continuing barrage of calls/e-mails/letters from their constituents will make a difference.”

Leppo also thinks AED’s efforts in Washington have made a difference. “I personally have lobbied very hard with the small business committee for several years,” said Leppo. “Section 179 is something that is a fairly obscure piece of federal legislation, yet it has had a huge positive impact for our customers, and it has had a positive impact on our business and on our manufacturer’s business. If you don’t think that’s worth lobbying for, then shame on you.”

In addition to his own efforts, Kirchhoff has worked to engage employees in the political process. “Politicians want to hear from as many people as possible,” explained Kirchhoff, “so the chance to get our employees involved both locally and nationally really goes a long way. There is strength in numbers.”

The fact of the matter is that most people don’t write to their elected representatives. This increases the importance of the letters or e-mails they do receive.

With all that’s going on in Washington, it’s easy for dealers to be frustrated. “You have two choices,” contends Leppo. “You can complain or you can do something about it.”
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