IT’s all about relationships.
That was the key takeaway from a carrier panel in a session entitled: “The Importance of a Company Government Affairs Program.” The panel was part of National Tank Truck Carriers’ 69th Annual Conference that took place April 30 to May 2 in Chicago, Illinois.
Panelists included: Robert Dold, former US representative for Il linois’ 10th Congressional District; Matt Hart, executive director of the Illinois Trucking Association; and John Whittington, vice-president of government relations for Grammer Industries Inc. The moderator was Boyd Stephenson, NTTC senior vice-president of government affairs & counsel.
Q: Tell us about yourself, your experience with government affairs programs, and why you feel they are critical.
Dold: Government affairs is really important. It’s one of the things that oftentimes people forget about. What I continually tell people is, “Either you’re at the table or on the menu.” Ultimately, as we see the amount of regulations that are being foisted upon businesses large and small, and also what the government does to either alleviate or potentially make life much more difficult for you. It’s critically important that you understand what’s going on and what’s around the corner. And ultimately to have an ability to educate those folks at the state and local level—and also, I would argue, the federal level—about what it is you do each and every day. Frankly, it’s critically important. So recognize that if you don’t do anything, somebody is going to weigh in and have an adverse impact on you or your business. As someone that has been the recipient of many a government affairs person to walk through their door, it is certainly helpful to get that first-hand perspective, understand what it is that you were concerned about because then when those things come up, you are far more aware of the consequences and the impact that it will have on global businesses, and obviously constituents and employees.
Hart: You all have money and the state of Illinois does not, so that makes you a constant target for lawmakers. One of the things we do on the state level is talk to lawmakers about the impacts of decisions they make in Springfield (Illinois) and Washington DC, and what that means to someone running a business back home. On a day-to-day, day-in-and-day-out business, the Illinois Trucking Association is pounding away at lawmakers, reminding them how important the trucking industry is, reminding them that you all pay $9,000 per truck per year to the state and $9,000 per truck per year to the federal government. You have an investment that you’ve got to protect. Lawmakers in Springfield, your state capital, or Washington DC, are making decisions based on the money you’re giving them. It’s your job to hold them accountable, to make sure they’re doing the best job possible with your money. Illinois is a state where every year we have 6,000 bills that are introduced in the Illinois assembly—6,000 pieces of legislation. And there’s no way any legislator can look through 6,000 bills and be a specialist on 6,000 bills. They rely on specialists that are at the capital to tell them what’s a good bill and what’s a bad bill. What helps us in representing you in Springfield or your state capital, or Washington DC, is they see our face every time, but at the end of day, Matt Hart can’t vote for a state senator from downtown Chicago. I can’t vote for a state representative from southern Illinois. But you can. You have that ability and influence. And guess what? You have drivers and dispatchers that work for you. You carry influence. All the people who are part of your organization have spouses, aunts, uncles, and cousins, so you have incredible influence when you run a trucking company. You have incredible influence with your lawmakers, and it’s important that you have a great conversation and a great relationship with your state representative or state senator, even if you think they don’t have the same politics as you or you didn’t vote for them. It doesn’t matter. You have a business in their district. It’s important you have a conversation with them on a regular basis that lets them know, “I’m here. I have a business. I have influence over voters. Here’s how some of the decisions you make are affecting me back home.”
Whittington: I’m the only carrier up here, but I wanted to be here because I wanted to show how much value there is to being involved in advocacy. Our company is a mid-sized company—about 200 trucks. We operate east of the Mississippi and have about nine terminals. We don’t have enough resources to completely devote to a government relations person, but we find great value in being involved. I coordinate all our efforts of being involved in associations, whether a commodity association or state association, or on the national level, such as the American Trucking Associations or NTTC. We try to combine those efforts and best utilize those to make sure we’re getting the best value. We like to get involved. Many in this room know my father. He taught me that the world is run by the folks who show up. And he taught me to show up. If we don’t show up, other advocates that are against trucking or against business in general will be there. The world isn’t run by the people with the best ideas. It’s run by people who show up.
Q: What does a government affairs program look like? That can be as simple as visiting your member of Congress. Can we talk about the efficacies or differences between getting a visit in Washington DC, or in the district?
Dold: Obviously there are legislative days where the industry will come to Washington, storm the hill and meet with members of Congress. You should have a personal relationship with your member of Congress. You seek them out, you know who they are. You don’t want the first time you walk through the door to be the first time they laid eyes on you. Each and every one of you has an influence. Why? Because you are an economic generator for them and their district. You want to make sure you have a relationship regardless, frankly, of political persuasions. If for some reason there’s a member of Congress you don’t agree with 100% of the time, you still want to make sure that when that opportunity arises, they are going to take your call or someone in their office will. Why? Because they know you continually show up, that you’re there. That’s going to be really important. That makes that visit—the efficacy of your efforts—that much better. And so there are going to be those events that happen back in the district that are outside of the industry that you need to make sure you continue to go to. You want to make sure you are building that relationship tangibly. How many of you have invited your member of Congress or state representative or state senator to your place of business? That is probably the best form of education you’re going to have, and you’re giving them the ability to visit with their constituents. So you’re killing a number of birds with that single effort, largely because the drivers and dispatchers are like, “Wow, this is great. I have the opportunity to talk with the local representative.” They get a better understanding of what you do each and every day—the safety measures you go through.
Hart: There’s a good friend of mine, Tom Ryder, who is a former state representative. He uses these three letters: ADP. That stands for access, educate, and persuade. First thing you want to do with any legislator is just gain access to them. That’s just stopping by their office, asking for an appointment, calling, and setting up an appointment. Just go in and introduce yourself so they know who you are. We’re not in it on the very first day, trying to push a piece of legislation—just gaining access. Then there’s educate. That’s going in there and saying, “Do you know the trucking industry pays $9,000 per truck per year in federal user fees? That we pay another $9,000 per truck per year to the federal government?” It’s educating them. After you gain access and after you begin to educate them, then you can begin to persuade them. You’re not always going to persuade them successfully, but if you’ve done the steps in the right order and built up a relationship, then a lawmaker is more receptive. A lot of people don’t realize this, especially in a state like Illinois. We spend 85% of our time killing bad bills. That’s true. I wish I could say we spend 85% of our time just promoting the good things that go on in the trucking industry or promoting economic development. But in a state like Illinois where we have the political environment we have, we spend more time killing bad bills. Someone has to be accessing lawmakers, educating, them, and persuading them against bad bills.
Whittington: I agree with all of that. I work hard to try to get to know my legislators ahead of time, not just when we need something. I don’t just stop with that member of Congress or senator, but actually try to get to know their staff. That staff member is access to the member of Congress. That staff member is just like in our offices, doing the grunt work and putting the bills together. That’s going to be the one who picks up phone to call you. Last week, I got confirmation that I must be doing it right when one of my senator’s staff emailed me and reached out to me when there was a particular bill dealing with biodiesel. He said, “John, I was going to get a hold of you because I want to get your opinion on this.” I want to be the trusted resource for our elected officials. They need someone to call. They can’t be the expert on trucking. We’re that voice. We are the experts on trucking. We understand our industry way better than all of these other elected officials, because they can’t understand our topic. They don’t have time for that. We understand our problems better than anybody else. And we also know how to solve them. ♦