Passing (a Wrong) Judgment on Coalitions

By May 23, 2007General

We’re not sure whether the Washington Post’s columnist on the lobbying industry, Jeffrey Birnbaum, was poking fun or waxing indignant — the latter being more typical — but a piece he did yesterday came across as a bit of know-nothingness. His argument: There are many coalitions in Washington! They have funny names! Their issues are obscure! So they must be wrong!

By conservative estimate, Washington has a gazillion coalitions. These ad hoc groups are amalgams of diverse interests that press for common legislation. It seems lobbying has gotten so expensive and complex that no trade association or law firm can carry the burden of persuasion alone anymore.

But the practice of joining forces in this way has gotten out of hand. There is hardly an issue, no matter how obscure, that does not have a coalition pulling for it. Here is a sampling of the narrowest and strangest pro-business coalitions:

LIFO Coalition: opposes repeal of the LIFO (last-in, first-out) inventory accounting method.

Active Financing Working Group: works to preserve the active financing exception to Subpart F of the Internal Revenue Code, which benefits U.S.- based financial services firms.

Government Withholding Relief Coalition: lobbies to repeal Section 511 of the Tax Increase Prevention and Reconciliation Act, which requires a 3 percent withholding on government payments.

Etc. You get the drift.

Dena Battle, the NAM’s director of tax policy, offers these thoughts.

Just because it’s obscure doesn’t mean that it won’t be extremely costly to our members. In fact, sometimes the most obscure issues are the ones that require coalitions the most.

Don’t know about Section 511 of the tax code? Then you’re right up there with about 80 percent of Members of Congress. But, 58 associations, ranging from the National Association of Manufacturers, Women Impacting Public Policy, the Messenger Courier Association of the Americas and America’s Health Insurance Plans, know all about it. That’s because Section 511 of the tax code represents a new tax burden for all of their members. It’s an obscure issue that’s problematic for millions of businesses, hospitals and state and local government.

So, how to get it on Congress’s radar screen? We form a coalition. And we meet with every member of Congress to make sure they know about this issue. Perhaps Jeffrey Birnbaum thinks that’s “narrow and strange” – we think it’s just good lobbying on behalf of our members.

Yes, the public and associations, including NAM members, expressing their views and experiences in an effective manner to Congress, exercising their rights to petition the government.

They’ve gotten out of hand!

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  • Both the Senate and House have now passed “lobbying reform” legislation (S. 1, H.R. 2316). Both bills would change the laws governing “coalitions and associations,” but the language in the two bills differs greatly. On June 4, National Right to Life issued a memo that compares the House and Senate provisions, which is posted here.

    In summary, the memo notes that the House-passed language is complicated and has been construed in very different ways by different readers. For example, Speaker Pelosi issued a press release that said the House language “closes a loophole in current law that permits coalitions such as the one that funded the so-called ‘Harry and Louise’ health care ads to avoid disclosing their clients.” During floor debate, Rep. Rahm Emanuel said the House language would address the situation in which “interest groups could hide behind phony names and advertise against members.”

    The NRLC memo focuses on the potential impact of the murky House language on nonprofit advocacy groups, but other types of entities that study the House language might well come to share NRLC’s conclusion that the Senate language is far clearer and more properly focused.

    Douglas Johnson
    Legislative Director
    National Right to Life Committee
    (202) 626-8820