"The Power of A: Associations and Advocacy"
by Connie Tipton, IDFA president and CEO
Delivered at the American Society of Association Executives Washington, D.C. Fly-In for American Associations Day, March 9-10, 2016
Thank you for the opportunity to join you today and to share my perspective on advocacy and the importance of your lobbying visits to Capitol Hill. You have already heard from ASAE’s leadership on why they think this is an important endeavor, and I assume you must lean in that direction since you’re actually signed up and present. It’s a wise choice for many reasons.
I know you will get briefings on key topics and messages as well as all of the logistics yet this afternoon, so it might be helpful to hear how all of the planning – as well as impromptu opportunities – comes together to make a difference.
To start, here’s a little information on my background -- I have worked with the International Dairy Foods Association, an organization representing companies that make and market dairy products, for 35 years and have been the CEO of that organization for 12 years. Along the way, I have had a number of different jobs within the organization, but my passion has always been to have an impact on government policies so that our members could be successful in their pursuit of free enterprise.
Of course we all know free enterprise isn’t free. People risk their personal investment of time and money in building companies that can succeed or fail without any guarantees. The freedom to make those choices, however, is what makes the proposition of free enterprise so valuable. But more and more, government is interfering in that proposition with regulations, taxes and mandates that challenge the very premise of free enterprise.
Freedom is also an important factor in bringing us together at this meeting. We have the freedom to associate with others whose interests align with ours. That’s what makes ASAE and each of our organizations so special. We find value in coming together to make a difference for our members.
And that value really is the bedrock of associations – to join together with others of like purpose and, by doing so, make a positive impact for the people and organizations we represent.
We also have the freedoms granted us in the United States Constitution. Most notable, at least for our purpose at this conference, is our First Amendment right to freedom of speech and to petition our government.
Let’s consider these constitutional freedoms separately for a moment. Free speech is frequently hailed as an unassailable right, supported by many Americans even when they don’t agree with what’s being said.
But petitioning our government through issue advocacy, or lobbying, seems to always get thrown under the proverbial bus as something evil. Even the term “lobbying” has taken on a sinister meaning for some, especially in recent political campaigns.
In fact, President Obama took villainizing lobbyists to a new level when he came to the White House. He loudly threatened that he would bar any former lobbyist from serving in his administration and made sure no one with a lobbying background could serve on any advisory committees. As you may have guessed, that eliminates a lot of extremely qualified and well informed people, so in the end, it was a threat he found impossible to stick with, but he succeeded in putting another black mark on the name of lobbying.
Even in the current presidential primaries, lobbyists are often served up as something corrupt or unscrupulous. Of course there have been “bad apples,” just as there are in any profession or political campaign, for that matter, but the work of our government relies on people representing their interests and those of their constituents in order to arrive at the best outcomes on policies. There is no way members of Congress can imagine all of the tangential impacts a particular proposal may have when it’s put into law. Informing them of the nuances only someone steeped in a particular issue or industry would know is our right and responsibility; that’s why you’re here – and why it is important to share your stories.
It is our right as American citizens to advocate for our interests with our elected officials and to try to have a real impact on the policies and programs that govern our lives.
As Americans we are very fortunate, indeed, to have these freedoms to invest in endeavors we enjoy and believe in, to associate with others we agree with, and to use our collective voices to make a difference in policies that will shape our future.
I have served for a number of years on the board of the Bryce Harlow Foundation, an organization that provides scholarships to people pursuing advanced degrees that will help them in careers as business advocates. Bryce Harlow was an early leader in providing and promoting business advocacy with integrity. Before he became a lobbyist, he worked in the Eisenhower White House as the first congressional liaison. And he spoke often of the importance of maintaining relationships with members of Congress.
In a 1965 speech about business advocacy, Harlow said, it “is not simply good citizenship, it is hardheaded realism. It often means dollars and cents in profits. It may well mean avoidance of economic disaster.” And then he continued, “Many are the times that it means keeping the ‘free’ in free enterprise.”
ASAE brings us together as association colleagues from organizations with many different causes and cultures, and this common bond and purpose to keep our ability to associate freely without the imposition of government encumbrances is so important.
Whether it’s fighting against mandated higher costs that dramatically expanded overtime pay would bring or fighting to allow government employees who may be regulating your business to attend your meetings and get to know your industry, members of Congress must hear – through your stories – how their decisions, proposals and actions will affect your business and your members.
Simply put, lobbying is advocating a particular point of view. Lobbying is a legitimate and necessary part of our democratic political process. Government decisions affect both people and organizations, and public officials cannot make fair and informed decisions without considering information from a broad range of interested parties. All sides of an issue must be explored to produce equitable government policies.
John Graham and ASAE have done such a terrific job in advancing the interests of associations, and we must harness our power together, the Power of A, if you will, with each of our individual stories, to maximize our effectiveness in winning the votes on Capitol Hill.
Your job on Capitol Hill tomorrow is to tell the story of associations so Congress will see our incredible contributions as building blocks in our communities and our country. Share your own stories to demonstrate what your association does, how it contributes to the lives of your members and their employees, why this freedom to associate is important and how government policies can help or hinder that process.
I have participated in many Washington fly-ins as well as hundreds of meetings on Capitol Hill. They are all different. You may meet with a member of Congress or Senator, or you may meet with a 23-year-old junior staffer, but each of these meetings is important; they build on one another, and you never know where that encounter may lead you. Over time, meetings can lead to relationships, and those relationships can pay big dividends, both personally and professionally, especially if you lay the right groundwork as a credible and reliable source of information.
I’ll give you a personal example. When John Boehner, former Speaker of the House, was first elected to Congress in 1990, he joined the House Agriculture Committee where many issues related to my industry are considered, so I went to his office to meet him.
He was in the back hall of the Longworth Building, and it was lunch time, but his staff said to go on in. There he was, stocking feet on his desk in a small room, with a tuna sandwich in one hand and a cigarette in the other. That was the beginning of a relationship that helped me work with him on dairy issues throughout his career in Congress, and he was a great proponent of working toward freer markets – exactly what our industry desires.
At that first meeting, I never imagined he would become a powerful Speaker of the House. So remember, all your Hill meetings are important, because you never know where these contacts may lead in the future.
Soon, you’ll get all of your tips on messages and logistics from the ASAE staff, but here’s my best advice: In every congressional meeting, be concise and compelling with your personal stories, be respectful of the allotted time, and ask for their support before you leave. Don’t forget to ask for their support.
Clearly, involvement and commitment are fundamental to what we all do in our associations. Thank you for being a part of this important, unified effort. All of our voices together can indeed be powerful.
Someone once said, “The difference between involvement and commitment is like ham and eggs. The chicken is involved; the pig is committed.” I’m not saying we must die for our cause, but our involvement and commitment to represent what is important to our members is vital to the continuation of the freedoms that undergird our nation.
Ronald Reagan once said, “Government’s first duty is to protect the people, not run their lives.” Let’s make sure members of Congress get that point loud and clear.