Business Associations Say It’s Business as Usual

Posted December 12, 2008 at 6:17pm

While acknowledging that new House and Senate Democratic majorities will mean trimmer legislative wish lists, GOP-leaning trade associations are hardly undergoing a major retooling of their lobbying or political shops.

Still, a new political environment may mean fashioning a new interpretation of business as usual.

“We’re not going to be as aggressive as we have been in years past,” Sharon Sussin, the National Federation of Independent Business’ political director, told Roll Call last week. “We’re trying to find that balance.”

But even though wholesale overhauls are not in the cards, trade associations such as the NFIB, the National Association of Realtors and the National Automobile Dealers Association admit that with many of their strongest allies now backbenchers or out of Congress altogether, it’s back to basics.

Compromise on divisive issues like card check remains off the table. Still, making inroads within the Democratic ranks and retaining incumbents is expected to become a priority.

“Nothing’s going to change,” National Automobile Dealers Association lobbyist Bailey Wood said. “We already have a very bipartisan staff, and our issues aren’t generally one-sided.”

But fundraising numbers appear to suggest otherwise.

Out of more than $2.5 million in overall campaign contributions given by the group since 2007, automobile dealers through their political action committee gave two-thirds of their federal political support to Republican candidates.

According to CQ MoneyLine, the Dealers Election Action Committee PAC gave $920,000 to Democrats, $1.8 million to Republicans and roughly $60,000 apiece to party committees from both sides.

Trade groups with traditionally GOP-leaning agendas also say that the 49-member Blue Dog Coalition undoubtedly will provide the shortest route to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) ear.

“The Blue Dogs are a very effective and powerful voice that speak directly to the Speaker,” Wood said. Pelosi “understands what it takes to be there and to stay in the majority.”

Other than working on “a more bipartisan approach,” the NFIB’s Sussin also said her group isn’t mulling any significant changes for the 111th Congress. She agreed that the Blue Dog’s swelling ranks should provide the best way for her group to communicate priorities to Democratic House leaders.

Sussin also said that tempering expectations for her group’s “passionate” members is “hard sometimes,” posing perhaps the most difficult task with President-elect Barack Obama in the White House and Democratic control of both chambers.

“They’re laying it on the line every week to make payroll, so a lot of them are set in their ways and beliefs,” she said.

Since 2007, the NFIB’s PAC gave just 18 percent of its political gifts to Democrats, according to CQ MoneyLine.

The National Association of Realtors, too, may be vetting more conservative Democrats to establish a foothold within the new majority. According to CQ MoneyLine, the organization gave 57 percent of its PAC contributions to Democrats this cycle — the first time since 1994 Republicans did not take the majority of its political contributions.

A Realtors spokesman said that this cycle’s course correction is in line with the group’s priorities.

“We remind our members that we belong to the Realtor party,” the spokesman said. “You need to check your partisan hat at the door when you’re talking about who the Realtors’ association is going to support in Congress.

“We support those who support us,” the spokesman added. “If you look at our past, it swings on a pendulum.”

Since 1980, the Realtors’ PAC has given $19.5 million, or 45 percent of its political contributions, to Democrats. Republicans have received roughly $24 million in gifts from the group, according to CQ MoneyLine.

“We’ve always had a very good relationship with both sides of the aisle,” the spokesman said. “If you look at our past and project into the future, like most groups we’re interested in retaining incumbents. … We’ve always roughly mirrored the numerical breakdown of Congress.”

Democratic fundraiser Mike Fraioli agreed that many trade groups — even those with Republican-leaning priorities — “largely play incumbents.”

Democratic-leaning groups such as the American Association for Justice, formerly known as the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, also say they’re expecting “nothing unusual” in their political or lobbying lineup, although Linda Lipsen, the group’s lobbyist, acknowledges that with Democrats now in charge, it allows the group to be “more proactive.”

“It’s certainly easier,” she said. “A lot of the Democratic offices are focused on consumers, so that it may be easier to make a policy argument.”

Plaintiffs’ lawyers through their PAC have given 89 percent of their political contributions to Democrats since 1980, according to CQ MoneyLine.

Still, despite an apparent sympathetic majority in Congress, Lipsen said her group isn’t letting its guard down on its marquee lobbying issues: staving off tort reform. “The lobby infrastructure that wants to promote immunity never goes away,” she said.