NATM's digging into DC

May 1, 2009
Association hires law and lobbying firm K&L Gates to make an impact on the issues that matter most to trailer manufacturers

For many years, the National Association of Trailer Manufacturers (NATM) wanted to have an impact on federal legislation, but didn't know exactly how to do it.

“Normally, we went to Washington and found out that decisions already had been made,” said NATM past president Andy Gehman. “For the most part, our influence level was fairly low. We were being very reactive. I would guess we really didn't have a plan.”

Said Carl Maxey, past president and the original committee chair for government affairs, “What we can learn from past history is that if it's in the Federal Register, the train is too far down the tracks. Enough discussion had gone into policy making that we didn't have the opportunity to influence it.”

Gehman and Maxey felt NATM should do something different, so they sold the board on the idea of hiring its own firm to lobby on its behalf on legislative, regulatory, policy, and political matters. Last August, NATM hired K&L Gates and set out to develop a multi-year government affairs plan.

“What we're trying to do is create an environment where the association members can succeed and not be adversely affected by policy or regulatory matters,” said Darrell Conner, government affairs counselor for K&L Gates, in the convention's Government Affairs Workshop. “To a large extent, it's trying to ensure that federal policymakers are on our side when it comes to issues of importance. They may not always agree with you, but they're willing to sit down and talk and understand. To be quite honest, there's no real magic to it. It's just a concerted effort so that people do it continuously, over and over again. Through that process, you build relationships. Our effort is to be a consistent voice. It's what we do: lobby and advocacy on behalf of our clients. We do it day in and day out.”

He said the universe of people he talks to is really quite small. There may be “two handfuls of people in Congress who really care about these issues.” But they are important people.

“These are the people who specialize in these issues,” he said, “and you want them to understand to the fullest extent what the issues are in your industries. Members of Congress and agencies have lots of things on their plate. They're spread thin and have little attention span for issues. That's why you have to continue to educate them.

“We don't have to have a shotgun approach and talk to 535 members of Congress and 1000 staff, because the issue is to build relationships and develop supporters who can be advocates. They will tell your message to the other folks. You don't want to be working at cross purposes. There are lots of think tanks in DC as well. You have to figure out where they are and whether they are averse to you or not.

“We're trying to get a carefully honed message. We're doing regular articles on the campaign, targeted meetings in DC, briefings with both agencies and Congressional folks to educate them on issues. We don't want to go into the first meeting and say, ‘This really hurts us. Can you do this?’ We want them to understand the industry first and then, if there is an issue, they will be receptive because they understand the consequences.

“It really is important to have data to support the issue. If it's skewed and questionable, it creates a level of uncertainty among agency officials or Congressional staff members, who find flaws in it and say, “They're not shooting straight with us.' I know it's tough and time-consuming, but it's important.”

Conner and NATM are working on developing a uniform brake standard. State laws vary dramatically: Six states have no statute on a minimum GVWR for brakes. Twenty-one states require brakes for a GVWR over 3000 lb. Two states require them for over 10,000.

NATM, which has been researching this issue for three years through its government affairs committee, has been canvassing other organizations for their opinions on what a uniform brake standard would entail and how it should be approached. NATM wants to work with a coalition of trade organizations and axle and brake manufacturers to pursue the best avenue for legislation.

“When we look at our last effort — the hydraulic-brake effort — that took 10 years, and that was pretty straightforward,” Maxey said. “So we decided we might as well start this one, because you never get to the end if you never start. But we have no illusions of next year jumping up and down and saying, ‘This is done.’ ”

Maxey said that without accurate data, it's very difficult to accomplish the stated objectives.

“You do have opposition in pretty important places,” Conner said. “If you can find the people likely to oppose it and at least get them to be neutral, that increases your chances for success. The message has to be very focused — succinct and to the point. It's not easy. These are complex issues.”

FMCSA update

Larry Minor, director of the office of bus and truck standards and operations for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), encouraged NATM members to keep the lines of communication open.

“It might be something simple where we can provide an answer in five minutes,” he said. “If it's something more complicated, maybe we can schedule a meeting face-to-face and talk through the issue. If it's something really complicated that requires formal written interpretation, we can give you guidance on how to phrase the question.

“We try not to be too bureaucratic in the way we operate. Logic does play a major role in how we operate. We like to be open-minded and responsive to the concerns of the industry, but our priority is safety, and we will do it in the most cost-conscious manner possible. We know a lot of rules have been there since the 1930s, and unfortunately our mode of operation for many decades was, ‘Just write it and forget it.’ So once we got that final rule published, we were on to something else, and nobody went back to review it or reconsider it. And now, with a little lull in our legislative operation, we like to take time to go back and say, ‘Is that rule necessary?’ We're open to revisiting that from time to time.

“We strongly encourage you to visit our Web site to see what we're planning. Another secret is looking at the regulatory agenda. Agencies are supposed to put out a regulatory agenda that references what they're working on in the short term (6-12 months), as well as long term (three years). So you shouldn't be blindsided by any regulatory agenda.”

He said that one big-ticket item in the near term is FMCSA's work on a comprehensive safety analysis for 2010, featuring an overhaul of its safety fitness determination process for how ratings are determined for carriers that operate vehicles.

About the Author

Rick Weber | Associate Editor

Rick Weber has been an associate editor for Trailer/Body Builders since February 2000. A national award-winning sportswriter, he covered the Miami Dolphins for the Fort Myers News-Press following service with publications in California and Australia. He is a graduate of Penn State University.