Energy was high and the mood upbeat as dozens of SAF members talked up the power of the floral industry across Capitol Hill on March 15, during SAF’s Congressional Action Days (CAD). Attendees represented every type and size of floral business — retail florists, independent designers, wholesalers, suppliers, importers and growers.
Traveling together as state or regional teams (and occasionally as a confident solo), they worked their way through more than a quarter of congressional offices talking about their businesses and sharing the industry’s concerns.
Dave Self, owner of Wyld West Annuals in Loxahatchee, Fla., says the only thing that could lure him away from the Sunshine State’s balmy weather was “the opportunity to get my representatives thinking about what matters to my business.” Of utmost importance to him: repealing 1099 regulations and immigration reform.
SAF President Leo Roozen of Washington Bulb Company in Mount Vernon, Wash., lauded the many CAD veterans in attendance for an important recent legislative victory that demonstrates how persistent grassroots lobbying pays off: On January 1, the estate tax would have been reinstated to pre-2001 levels (55 percent rate and a $1 million exemption), but a reform measure signed into law by President Obama set the tax rate at 35 percent and the exemption level at $5 million.
“This is a huge success for this industry and the small business community–and many of you here in this room, along with other SAF members, are responsible for it,” Roozen says at the kickoff breakfast last Monday. Some participants had been lobbying for estate tax relief at CAD for nearly 10 years.
“I want to thank all of you CAD veterans for every time you came to CAD, every time you sent an e-mail, wrote a letter, made a phone call.” Roozen says. “Individually and collectively, we make a difference.”
CAD attendees spent the second day of the event on Capitol Hill sharing the floral industry’s position on its top legislative and regulatory concerns. This year, those issues were immigration reform, repeal of new 1099 reporting requirements and extension of the Andean Trade Preference and Drug Eradication Act.
Before their trek through the halls of Congress, attendees spend a full day learning what to say and do when meeting with their legislators. At the kickoff breakfast March 14, Mark Halperin, senior political analyst for Time magazine and MSNBC, provided a sense of the mood in Congress and the administration’s legislative agenda.
Right now, the president is laser focused on following through on his campaign promises, and the Republicans, who are almost certain to take the Senate in 2012, are playing a waiting game, Halperin says: “I don’t think we’re going to see any bipartisanship this year, which is unfortunate, because the president’s agenda is very close to what the Republicans want. If you took politics out of the equation, I think they could come to a deal in about 45 minutes.”
At the issues briefing which followed, SAF’s government relationship team provided background and tips for translating industry concerns into constituent impact for lawmakers. Make it personal, says Jeanne Ramsay, SAF senior director of government affairs. “Talk about what it means to your business.”
The new 1099 rule requires businesses to send a 1099 to every vendor–and the IRS–with which they spend more than $600 annually on goods or services. Attendees easily translated that into a huge new workload.
“I’m probably underestimating a bit, but right now we probably write only a couple of 1099s each year,” says SAF Government Relations Chairman David Mitchell of Mitchell’s Flowers in Orland Park, Ill. “Under the new rules, that will jump to around 200.” First-time attendee Walter Knoll estimated his company would go from issuing 900 forms a year to 3,000 or more. “And the thing is, because you don’t know whether you’re going to hit that $600 mark with someone, you’ll just issue them to everyone.”
Concern for flower growers’ ability to find enough legal workers to harvest their crops was the focus of the immigration issue CAD attendees took to Capitol Hill. “SAF is willing to work with Congress on an improved enforcement program (through E-Verify),” says SAF Senior Director of Government Relations Lin Schmale. “But only if the solution includes realistic ways to obtain and maintain a productive, legally authorized workforce.”
The day’s training wrapped up with an interactive workshop with veteran lobbyist and former congressional staff director Stephanie Vance of Advocacy Associates. To prepare attendees for their visits to congressional offices the next day, Vance shared her three-tiered hierarchy of action: education, public relations and advocacy. “First, you want legislators to understand what you do,” Vance says. “Then, you want them to like what you do.”
After establishing insight and rapport, it’s time for advocacy. “Go in and ask for something specific,” she says. Asking is key, Vance says, “because it puts them on the spot.” Simply stating your beliefs invites legislators to nod, smile and compliment your argument; questioning them makes them take a stand.”
Monday evening, supporters of SAFPAC, SAF’s political action committee, could not help but be inspired by the advice of Retired Cmdr. Kirk Lippold, USN, who served as commanding officer on the USS Cole, when it was attacked by Al-Qaeda in the Yemeni port of Aden on Oct. 12, 2000.
After an emotionally riveting and spine-tingling account of the terrorist attack on his ship and the subsequent search and rescue operations, Lippold provided some practical messages for leaders to help them manage crises big and small. “Crisis management is about more than dealing with the ‘now’ or leaning on yourself,” Lippold says. “You need to always have a plan for where you’re going.” Additionally, Lippold preached the importance of “investing” the utmost trust in your crew. “Create a bubble of trust for people and they will learn what they need to do to be successful, even if they occasionally fail,” he says.
On Tuesday morning, Rep. Reid Ribble (R-8-Wisconsin), a first-time congressman who until very recently stood in the same small-business-owner shoes, cheered attendees on to their appointments. “I feel like I’ve come home, speaking to small business owners and association members,” he says, praising attendees for taking time away from their families and their companies to make a difference. “It is essential to the American dream and the prosperity of your children for you to speak with members of Congress about your concerns. Next year, there should be 1,000 of you here.”
On Capitol Hill
Among this year’s 80 CAD participants were 13 who walked the halls of Congress for the first time. Jay Winnerman of Smithers-Oasis, was one of them. “I found everyone very friendly,” he says of the staff members he met during his legislative appointments. “They were very busy but very respectful and really glad to see constituents. Overall, it was just a great experience. I’d absolutely do it again.”
SAF’s hospitality suite at the Capitol Hill Club was buzzing all day Tuesday as members prepared for and reported back about their congressional appointments. “(Sen.) Olympia Snow (R-Maine) is definitely supporting all our positions. I feel very positive about both of my appointments this morning,” says Shelley Pease of Shelley’s Flowers & Gifts in Waldoboro, Maine.
First-time CAD participant Skip Paal of Rutland Beard Florist in Catonsville, Md., was pleased with his stop at the office of Rep. Rosko Bartlett (R-6-Md.): “The woman I talked with knew where my business was and said she’d drag the congressman to see me if she had to.” Paal received a thank you e-mail from his contact at Bartlett’s office the same afternoon.
“The two meetings we had this morning were the best we’ve ever had,” says Troy Lucht of Plant Source International & Malmborg’s in Rogers, Minn. “The people we met with asked very specific questions about our positions and really wanted to hear what we had to say.”
The 2012 election campaigns will be underway the next time SAF members make their trip to Washington. “It’ll be more important than ever to make sure we’re visible on Capitol Hill,” says Drew Gruenburg, SAF COO. Congressional Action Days 2012 is set for March 19-20. Programs and training take place on March 19 at the Crystal Gateway Marriott in Alexandria, Va., with congressional visits just across the Potomac the following day.
Learn more about Congressional Action Days online at www.safnow.org.