Successful manufacturers have a plan for just about any contingency. They’re thinking ahead about adopting new technology, cutting energy costs and handling health care issues. Increasingly though, one of their biggest challenges is dealing with the complex landscape of increasing regulations, politics and government. The decisions made by people in state capitals and in Washington, D.C., affect every aspect of how they do business.
Spending millions on lobbyists is one tactic to deal with this complexity — though not always a successful one, as demonstrated by the recent Comcast-Time Warner debacle. The alternative is for company leaders to engage in some tough evaluation and creative thinking about how to get through the political noise. They need new strategies to promote their priorities and get the politicians and policy decision-makers on their side.
Politics permeates everything
Increasingly, working the political angles is just part of doing business. Companies find politics comes into play early and often, whether they need a local permit for storm drainage or in directing major federal action on immigration reform.
According to the National Manufacturers Association, top issues for manufacturers include energy, health care, infrastructure, regulatory reform, taxes, trade and immigration. Naturally, issues that directly affect a company’s operations—its costs, profits, expansion plans and employment outlook—are of utmost concern to any company. Yet it can be difficult to communicate the urgency of these issues to decision-makers, let alone persuade them to share the same priorities.
Why is it so hard to work on political issues and actually accomplish anything? Everyone laments “partisan gridlock,” each party blaming the other for it. But that’s only part of the reason so little gets done. The political process has become so complicated that it is inscrutable even to government staffers. That helps keep lobbyists in business, according to author Lee Drutman, who notes that sometimes they seem to be the only ones who understand what’s been proposed and adopted. But it certainly doesn’t help ordinary citizens who are trying to run their companies and promote their interests.
Drutman outlines the scope of the problem in his book, “The Business of America Is Lobbying: How Corporation Became Politicized and Politics Became More Corporate” (Oxford University Press, 2015). He notes that with the proliferation of clashing interests, it’s harder to change the status quo. And when legislation does pass, it tends to be extremely complex, reflecting all the bargains and tradeoffs that had to be made in the process. As an example, think of the Affordable Care Act and its regulations, one version of which contained at least 10,000 pages, according to the Washington Post.
Writes Drutman, “The policy process is neither a vending machine nor an auction … Politics is far messier, and far more interesting than such simplistic models might suggest. And almost certainly, the increased competition for political outcomes has made it even more unpredictable.”
As an illustration, look at the efficiency of the 113th Congress. According to Govtrack.us, over the last two years, it has seen about 10,000 active bills, only about three percent of which were passed. It’s probably no coincidence that Gallup reports that Americans’ approval rating for Congress has ranged between 12 percent and 15 percent in the early part of this year.
The struggle for traction
Why do even some of the most well-funded issue campaigns fail to gain traction with lawmakers? There are several possible reasons.
- A proposal might be important to only a select few — by definition, a “special interest” issue.
- There are funding issues and concerns. Worthy bills and programs often die in the Appropriations Committee because there’s no revenue stream to cover them.
- They lack a groundswell of popular support. In this case, a proposal might not generate the kind of enthusiasm that produces a lot of legislative co-sponsors. That means fewer voices argue for passage.
- Legislators like to see benefits for their particular constituents. If they do not, they’re less inclined to go to bat for a given issue or pay it much attention.
Interestingly, in the proposed Comcast merger with Time Warner, there seemed to be no constituency urging approval aside from Comcast itself. According to The New York Times (April 24, 2015), the deal collapsed as it became clear that federal regulators were ready to block it. This occurred in spite of Comcast’s $5.9 million in campaign contributions during the 2014 elections and $25 million expenditures lavished on lobbyists.
Moving the political process forward
Tough scrutiny is called for as companies evaluate the realistic chances for getting action on their political priorities. Manufacturers need to realize that in a sense they’re competing for a limited resource in the form of a legislator’s time and attention. In addition, they are often up against other issues that are more inherently compelling. In California, for instance, two of the hottest political debates concern a Senate bill to require immunizing schoolchildren to prevent the spread of measles, and another one enabling “death with dignity.” Public safety, children’s health, religious freedom, individual suffering, right to life … issues like these naturally capture the attention of the general population as well as numerous interest groups.
To get involved with the political process in a meaningful way, start by following some basic guidelines:
- Don’t have a long to-do list. Focus on just a couple of high-priority issues on which you want public officials to take action.
- Look for likely sponsors and people who will support the company’s or industry’s issues. Scrutinize any bills that are similar as well as those that might compete with it.
- Consider the funding that will be needed to promote specific legislation, as well as possible opportunities for favorable mentions in the media.
- Remember that imagery is important. Frame the issue so that it taps into a universal value (e.g. security, safety). Can it be reframed so a negative idea (drones are scary) becomes a positive one (drones are useful and helpful)?
- Understand that it’s easier to block an idea or proposal than it is to get one passed.
Another fact of life in politics is that lawmakers looking toward the next election want evidence that there is real benefit to their constituents if they support a certain issue or real harm to constituents if they oppose it. Think of the urgency that helped promote the health care reform law despite zero support from one side of the aisle. “Forty million Americans have no health insurance!”
The public relations angle
Manufacturers often fail to generate support for their issues with messages that resonate with the public. Also, they often fail to reach into their rank-and-file workforce for support that could effectively bolster their issues with lawmakers.
The debate over Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) is a good example of an issue that both sides have tried to frame using an issue of importance to lawmakers and their constituents: jobs. It was either job-creating legislation or job-killing legislation, depending on which side of the argument one favored.
Companies must work with their employees, supporters and advocates to create frameworks and fresh narratives to propel their priorities forward.