March 1, 2005

If You Don’t Speak Up, You Don’t Exist

As the president of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, Dirk Van Dongen is the legislative middleman for America's middlemen and has been cutting deals, forming alliances with key lobbying groups and exerting influence in Congressional hallways for the past two decades. As a leader in the Republican party, he has prodded administration after administration to secure legislation in favor of business owners while mobilizing the business community behind the Bush candidacy.

In early February, President Bush unveiled an ambitious second-term agenda in his State of the Union Address. The preceding week, the Houses of Congress laid out their own priorities for the next two years. What Congress and the president accomplish—or don't—in the next four years will have profound effects on America's businesses.

Forget what you have heard—it is possible to influence and even change decisions made in Washington. People who are not activists in the democratic process tend to greatly underestimate their ability to influence Washington. You don't cause major things to happen nor do you stop major things from happening with single voices. However, lots of single voices working together really do make a difference.

I often get asked how wholesale distribution has so much clout in Washington. After all, in the grand scheme of things, one of hundreds of trade associations in Washington has some serious competition in finding an ear that will listen. This answer is easy: Resources can be found in the most unexpected places.

At NAW, we developed the Washington Action Network, a computerized database listing any personal relationships our members have with their congressmen. Each contact is rated in one of three categories: “know slightly,” “know moderately” and “know very well.” We have personal contacts in 433 of the 435 Congressional districts. Our members tend to have a real advantage because they are community rooted. The point is that every politician went to kindergarten with someone, dated someone's brother or sister, had a job in the community, etc.

Members of Congress vote on the basis of three things: First, any preconceived notions or biases they have on the topic; second, what they believe the people in their districts think or feel; and, third, what they actually hear about the topic. Congressional offices actually count the communications they receive, whether it is for or against an issue. It is important to remember that any good politician survives by being sensitive to what people back home care about.

In the 2004 election, business proved itself as never before. Working through the Business Industry Political Action Committee, almost 1,000 associations and corporations worked to provide their members and employees candidate information and downloadable absentee-ballot applications and early-voting information. When all was said and done, a total of 1.6 million voter-registration and absentee-ballot forms were downloaded, up from 200,000 in 2000 and 400,000 in 2002.

Along with the get-out-the-vote efforts, NAW had several teams in place to help with races we cared about. Team Burr helped distribution executive Richard Burr beat former Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles for the North Carolina Senate seat vacated by John Edwards. Team Thune helped John Thune defeat Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. The team idea is to raise money quickly by getting 20 to 25 Washington association leaders to promise to raise $25,000 each. The Teams raised nearly half a million dollars for each candidate.

There are a lot of things we would like to see happen in the second Bush Administration: tort reform, permanent tax cuts, Social Security reform and pro-business health care reform. The election results greatly enhance the chances that these things will occur. The recent enactment of class action reform legislation after years of frustration is an important down payment in this regard.

Comparatively few organizations are sophisticated when it comes to effective political advocacy. But any company can enhance its clout in a cost-effective way by joining with others in its industry through its trade association, and by mobilizing all of its resources and employees to speak out on issues of great or direct importance. Just look at what MSCI has accomplished with its Saving North American Manufacturing

It may not always be obvious, and it may not be quick, but people in Washington do listen, with a very sharp ear, to what you have to say. The better and more often you say it, the better your chances for success.

Dirk Van Dongen is president of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors in Washington, D.C. Van Dongen is also treasurer of the Wholesaler-Distributor Political Action Committee, president of the Distribution Research & Education Foundation and president of the NAW Service Corp.