Government Relations Is A Full-Time Job

Posted On: 9/12/2017

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The 2017 National Automatic Merchandising Association Fly-In demonstrated that the vending industry has lost none of its traditional skill and enthusiasm in explaining the services it provides and defending its right to provide them. Vendors also have a long history of recognizing potential problems and seeking cooperation with scientists and government regulators to solve them. The Automatic Merchandising Health Industry Council, organized by NAMA in 1957, remains a sterling example of fruitful collaboration in paving the way for technical progress while keeping the public safe.

With that history, it was not surprising that a record 300 NAMA members gathered in Washington, DC, for this year's Fly-In and a day of visiting the offices of their elected officials. This year, I was assigned to the Iowa group, and we were very favorably impressed by our reception by the legislators and their staffs. Cordiality is expected on such occasions, and it was manifest; but familiarity with the issues and sympathy for the business community came as a very pleasant surprise. The NAMA membership and the association's government affairs team have worked diligently to establish a positive presence on Capitol Hill.

We got the sense, too, that small businesses of all kinds finally are taking concerted action to press for the long-desired modernization of the U.S. tax code and a more open and reciprocal approach to writing and implementing the regulations required by acts of Congress.

It is important for those whose duty it is to draw up and enact laws to recognize the consequences of their legislation, and activities like the NAMA Fly-In play a vital role in building and deepening that recognition. Not only do operators vote, but they employ local voters, buy from and serve local businesses and often play an active role in local community affairs. An event organized to remind lawmakers of these facts deserves everyone's support.

But effective communication and bridge building are only part of the solution to a complicated, evolving problem. The complexity makes it difficult to summarize, but the danger comes in several parts. One is that the general public often cannot grasp the likely consequences of a measure that appeals strongly to generous sentiments without regard to reality. Another is that legislators are quite capable of acting against their constituents' interests if a well-organized, well-financed pressure group offers sufficient incentive. And a third is that the tenor of the times remains, as it has been for at least half a century, at least aloof from and often suspicious of "business." President Coolidge reminded the press that "the chief business of America is business," but business seldom has aroused much interest outside its own precincts. Glamor and vehemence can distract the public from its own best interests.

As an example, the international concern with growing "inequality" of wealth that has spurred so much discussion over the past decade has led to a renewal of demands for a higher minimum wage, and this has led several cities to impose such laws. In some cases, the local press has followed up by profiling small businesses at the economic margin that are forced to close. Their customers often say things like, "Of course we supported the higher minimum wage, but we never realized that it would put good old Charlie out of business."

The challenge is to find a way of organizing forums at which representatives and leaders with different interests would have the opportunity of exchanging ideas face to face. Visiting someone who received your support and your vote is agreeable to both parties, and certainly is important. At times, though, it would be valuable to visit someone whose base of support and policy prescriptions impelled you to vote for someone else. The topic would be, "What public good do you hope to achieve by your putting me out of business, and are you aware of the costs to the community?"

We've had occasion to remark on the apparently widespread misconception that "special interests" always are business conspiracies looking for government favors. It seems to us that, in the present age, they are more likely to be enthusiasts for a cause like saving the planet from something or other, who want the government to mandate some things and forbid others in furtherance of that sublime aim. The organizations lobbying for such causes are well-financed, and their staffs are only remotely concerned (if they are concerned at all) with the impact of their policy prescriptions on the people and companies  endeavoring to create value in the real world by meeting the needs and demands of a market. And these special interests have nothing to do except agitate for their chosen causes, so they can devote full time to the task.

Closer engagement with the political process is one way to fight back. There is value in getting to know elected officials with whom we do not see eye to eye, if for no reason other than to put a human, local face to a divergent viewpoint. And, as always, it's very helpful to establish good relations with legislators before a situation arises in which we need their help.