Musings from an Amateur Lobbyist at SAF’s Congressional Action Days in Washington DC

-Eric Levy

congressionalactiondays2017 0

Among the nearly 120 floral industry members who braved the snow for CAD: Oscar Fernandez, Equiflor/Rio Roses; Corrine Heck, Details Flowers; David and Pat Armellini, Armellini Express Lines; Sharon Roeser, Alex Atwood and (front and center, bent over) Liza Atwood, Fifty Flowers; Patricia and Glenn Sprich, Baisch & Skinner Wholesale; Jodi McShan, McShan Florist; Jamie Kitz, Sakata; Norman Northen, TMFA, and Diana Nordman, Texas State Florists Association, Mollie Meulenbroek, Studley Flower Gardens; Chris Drummond, AAF, Plaza Flowers; Susie and Nicole Palazzo, City Line Florist Inc.

I was at Congressional Action Days (CAD) in Washington DC on Monday and Tuesday (3/13-3/14). It was the most well attended CAD in about 10 years, 119 participants from 30 states. There were 30 first timers. That quantity of first timers for this event is staggering. I think this may be due to how much politics has been in the news lately. The major nor’easter/snowstorm whipped thru just as Congressional Action Days was heating up.

These were the issues we lobbied Congress on:

  1. Support comprehensive tax reform by simplifying the tax code and reducing rates, but excluding imported floral agricultural products from a border adjustment tax.
  2. Oppose stand-alone mandatory E-Verify legislation, including S.179, the “Accountability Through Electronic Verification Act,” which SAF’s Senior Director of Government Relations Shawn McBurney said would “cripple our agricultural economy.”
  3. Include a $250,000 increase for the Floriculture and Nursery Research Initiative in their formal requests to the Appropriations Committees.

On Tuesday, the day we go to the Hill to lobby after a training day on Monday the Hill was on a 3 hour delayed opening due to the storm. (Is this High School?) We went up at 11:00 AM instead of 9:00 AM and we all had extremely good visits in the offices. The administrative assistants we met with, I think were less overwhelmed for the other lobbyists that would usually be there, took the day off. Or perhaps the Congressmen told all their assistants to be nicer to constituents. Paul Fowle my partner in the NJ contingent from Delaware Valley and I (and the rest of SAF) noticed a different tone in the offices today. It seemed like the assistants were more interested and engaged in our meetings. Taking notes and really being willing to see our position through.

SAF had some Washington type insiders/speakers give speeches during the entire two day CAD event. The first one was Chris Cilliza of the Washington Post. At the opening breakfast on Monday, he talked about the Trump victory, how it happened. The Democrats foisted a weak candidate on the country, and more votes drifted that way because of it. He also mentioned that perhaps the Democrats need to run an alternative candidate in 2020, somebody like Mark Cuban, as an example. He characterized how the electing of Trump was like a middle finger to Washington from US citizens. During the Q &A afterwards one person asked Mr. Cilliza what is going to happen to the Trump presidency. He said there are four possibilities….He could resign, he could be impeached, re-elected, or run again and lose.” He stated there was probably at this point a 25% chance for each of those four options.

We also had Jessica Summers, who works for a law firm that SAF employs, Paley Rothman. As an SAF member, we are allowed to call SAF for free legal advice, and quite often if we get a lawyer on the phone, it would be this woman, Jessica. She spent about 20 minutes talking about Tax Reform and the BAT (Border Adjustment Tax). The United States has the highest corporate tax rate in the world. The rest of the world has lower tax rates for their corporations. What this does is it makes US companies more valuable for foreign entities to own. There was an estimate done, that if our tax rates were lower, 1,300 companies would not have left the US. A Prime example is Anheuser-Busch being bought by InBev. When a company is bought by a foreign entity, we lose some tax revenue and many jobs.

congressionalactiondays2017 1

Do not be intimidated,” said SAF’s Senior Director of Government Relations Shawn McBurney. “Congress relies on you for information. They want you to tell them about your business.”

SAF lost a longtime lobbying employee a few years back, (they still employ Shawn McBurney as a lobbyist) and rather than hire a second in-house lobbyist, SAF switched gears and hired a lobbying firm that also lobbies on the horticultural side. So there’s lots of synergy when those lobbyists visit a congressmen, they can talk the hort side and the cut flower side on the same visit. One representative from the lobbying firm that Paul and I got to know at CAD was Dr Joe Bischoff. He is a NJ guy, who has various degrees, including a PHD, from Rutgers. He now lives near Washington. He joined us on our visit to Josh Gottheimer, the newly elected House of Representative from NJ’s 5th District (where Scott Garrett roamed for many years before being deposed in Oct.). Joe thought it would be a good idea for Hillcrest Garden and his firm, Cornerstone Government Affairs, and SAF to begin to build a relationship with Rep. Gottheimer, so we can lobby him frequently on SAF’s wants from Congress. Hillcrest Garden resides in Rep. Gottheimer’s district.

congressionalactiondays2017 2

Joe Bischoff, Ph.D., one of SAF’s lobbyists with Cornerstone Government Affairs, explained the ins and outs of Floriculture and Nursery Research Initiative funding; CAD participants asked lawmakers on Tuesday to support a “modest” increase that would restore the fund to earlier levels. “[FNRI] is a partnership be industry, the academic community and the federal government,” he said. “We’re not just asking for money from the government. It’s about leveraging dollars.”

 

Great lobbying story: As we were waiting outside of Josh Gottheimer’s office, Joe Bischoff, Paul Fowle and I were talking about the e-verify system. For those of you that don’t know, e-verify is a computer system the government has built (that businesses are encouraged to use to vet new employees’ legal status). The only problem with e-verify is sometimes legal US citizens are flagged as illegal and illegal citizens are flagged as legal. It is riddled with errors. Joe was asked by Paul what dealings he had with Paul’s Delaware Valley NJ Congressman, Frank Lobiondo (NJ – 2nd District). Joe mentioned that he was in one meeting where Lobiondo (who normally does not want to be lenient on immigration) was talking about e-verify and he said that e-verify alone was not the way to go as far as Immigration Reform, due to the rampant error rate in the system. What struck me about this story was that Paul and I had been in Lobiondo’s office at least twice over the years, where we actually talked to Lobiondo about e-verify and its problems. So I’m sure our lobbying efforts helped build a base of knowledge of Rep. Lobiondo’s perspective on e-verify. Good job us!

congressionalactiondays2017 3

“We don’t have to be the experts,” Skip Paal, AAF, the head of Rutland Beard Floral Group in metro Baltimore, told the crowd. “Our stories matter.” Skip owns flower shops in NJ and Maryland.

Now For the Shameless Recruitment Effort: It would help the NJ contingent (at CAD) if we could get more floral companies helping with the lobbying effort, wholesaler, retailer, grower. If you know of a NJ or NY florist that seems even slightly interested in politics, or is passionate about the floral industry, pass that name along to me, Eric Levy, (201-599-3030) - I would like to approach that individual about taking part in future SAF Congressional Action Days events. There is money that you as an individual would have to spend on travel and hotels and registration to take part in the event, but if you are passionate about the floral industry, then the money would probably be secondary. There are some CAD attendees that do stay in other hotels to save money. SAF has a deal right now with the Ritz-Carlton in Pentagon City, and that hotel can be pricey, even with the negotiated rate that SAF has. Unfortunately other area hotels are only slightly less pricey.

congressionalactiondays2017 4

 

In the news there’s hysteria that the BAT would make guacamole more expensive, but flower prices would also rise significantly.

Right now there are two scary issues on the horizon that SAF and the floral industry are concerned about. As part of Tax Reform, if the corporate tax rate for businesses is cut from 35% to 20%, then the provision that will help pay for all that lost tax income will be an item called the Border Adjustment Tax, or the BAT for short. Basically it taxes products coming in at the border. The BAT is not a good idea for the floral business, since we do so much importing. It could significantly raise the prices on flowers bought from Ecuador and Colombia. Wholesalers and retailers would all have to charge a lot more money for their flowers, and we may drive customers away to jewelry or chocolate or other gift sectors, if flowers become too pricey. The other scary issue is about trade. Right now we count on getting a lot of flowers from Ecuador and Colombia. If Trump ramps up tariffs to these countries that would affect our business adversely like the BAT would. In sum, this could mean higher prices on flowers from both the BAT and higher tariffs on top of the BAT, a double whammy. If you can, write a letter to your congressman that would help. I have requested SAF email me a sample letter, which I will pass along in a future blog post. The sample letter may only mention the BAT, since that is the hot topic right now Congress is debating. There are Republican Senators that are opposed to the BAT. That is the good news.

congressionalactiondays2017 15jpg

Jim Carter, vice president of government affairs at Emerson, a diversified global manufacturing and technology company based in St. Louis, Missouri, and a tax reform adviser on the Trump Transition Team, briefed attendees on tax reform on Monday. “This administration is more attune to checking off campaign promises than others,” he said. Tax reform is something [President Trump] campaigned on. I would be shocked if we didn’t have something this year.”