How is it that the Brewers Association— an organization that has no political action committee, has employed a staff lobbyist for only 18 months, and has only had a strong presence in Washington since 2009—has gained significant traction among policymakers in the nation's capital?
Consider that in just the last few years:
- The BA successfully brought to the attention of Congress a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposal that could have negatively impacted the decades-long practice of small brewers donating their spent grains to local livestock farmers. The donation benefits both brewers and farmers (and their livestock). Congressional attention on the issue led the FDA to make clear that its regulatory efforts were not intended to burden, disrupt, or eliminate this practice.
- The BA-supported Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act, which would recalibrate the federal excise tax paid by small brewers for the first time in nearly 40 years, has broad bipartisan support in both congressional chambers. At press time, the House bill (H.R. 2903), introduced by Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-MN), had 275 co-sponsors. The Senate bill (S. 1562), introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR)—the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee—had 48 co-sponsors, including 23 Republicans and 25 Democrats. To be clear, more than two-thirds of the House and almost one-half of the Senate support this much-needed legislation.
- The BA's views regarding the planned merger of Anheuser Busch-InBev and SAB Miller and its effect on America's small brewers are solicited by members of Congress as well as regulators.
On these and other issues, the BA is now a serious player in Washington. That is not by accident; it's a carefully conceived strategy implemented by the BA board and senior staff—including president and CEO Bob Pease—over the last seven years that seeks to leverage the inherent strengths of America's small craft brewers.
Those small-brewer strengths include:
People like BA members' products. Washington, D.C. is a city with lots of high school valedictorians and former student-body presidents. This city likes policy debates. But it also likes fun—and beer. The fact that BA members, when they do come to Washington, are talking about craft beer makes policymakers and their staff even more receptive to the messages. Not surprisingly, BA-sponsored receptions on Capitol Hill are routinely attended by 300 to 400 staffers and members of Congress.
People like America's small brewers. As a group, BA members are incredibly likeable. And likeability cannot be underestimated in uber-serious Washington, where there is often conflict, disagreement, and division. Beer brings people together. Small brewers are really small Main Street manufacturers with an entrepreneurial passion for making great beer. For policymakers, who are always focused on jobs and job creation, the fact that so many small brewers started with one or two employees and have grown to 10, 50, or 100 employees makes BA members that much more attractive as a constituency. It's hard not to like and be sympathetic to a small business success story. Plus, it helps tremendously that BA members, as a group, are very focused on their employees' well-being and on giving back to their respective communities. Many small brewers have chosen urban areas in dire need of rejuvenation to locate their breweries, and that also is not lost on members of Congress.
Small brewers are now located in every state and almost every congressional district1. Nationally, craft breweries employ more than 122,000 workers. When four or five small brewers from any particular state or congressional district walk into a senate or house member's office to visit with them about federal excise taxes or any other issue, that senator or representative is going to care (some more than others, of course) about what brewers have to say and how the particular issues will affect their business and its employees. Every member of Congress cares deeply about employers, particularly small manufacturers.
The BA has ramped up its presence in Washington since 2009. Over the last seven years, the BA has planned and implemented multiple congressional lobby days in Washington, several with nearly 200 small brewers and state guild representatives participating. These Hill Climbs have put BA members on the map with members of Congress and their staffers, and have begun to create relationships that pay real political dividends. This doesn't mean BA members get everything they ask for—no group does.
But it does mean that members of Congress are familiar with small brewer issues, and would be more reluctant to support legislation or regulations that might harm small brewers (such as the FDA proposal noted previously).
Brewers have increased outreach back home. Visiting members of Congress in Washington is important for any group. But you really know you've arrived when members and their staff look to visit your small brewery back home in their congressional district. These are the kinds of visits—outside of the nation's capital—that forge strong bonds and open rapport. Every Hill Climb organized by the BA has included a recommendation that the small brewer invite the member or staffer to visit the brewery whenever they're back home. These visits have occurred numerous times, and are an important part of what makes our political program effective.
As the small brewers who have visited Washington know, members of Congress and their staff are bombarded all day, every day with requests from constituents across a broad spectrum of interests. It might be small brewers one minute, local hospitals the next, and defense industry contractors the next. Thus, the BA has purposely worked hard to keep its "asks" to a minimum.
The BA wants the issues that are vital to America's small brewers to be crystal clear to members of Congress. If you ask a member of Congress for his or her support on five or six matters (or more), and they can only back you on one or two, does that mean they support you? In Washington, yes it does—even though they may not support you on the other issues.
Accordingly, the BA has refined its asks to a few key matters: 1. Support for CBMTRA (excise tax recalibration); 2. Ensuring that the ABI-SAB Miller merger does not negatively affect small brewers' access to market; 3. Joining the House or Senate Small Brewers Caucus; and 4. Increasing funding for the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) so that small brewers' regulatory matters may be addressed more efficiently.
Some groups have lobbied in Washington for 75 years or more. The BA, in contrast, is a relative newcomer to federal advocacy. However, in just a few short years, the BA—owing to the strengths noted above and the willingness of BA members to take time away from their businesses to come to Washington—has made significant strides to put the craft brewing industry's best foot forward.
With the Republican National Convention having taken place in Cleveland July 18-21 and the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia the following week, Congress was in recess from July 15 until after Labor Day (September 5). That means many members of Congress were back in their home states and congressional districts, meeting with constituents and attending events as the November 8 election rapidly approaches. If you are so inclined, congressional work periods are a perfect opportunity for outreach to senators and house members for a visit to your brewery or brewpub. (See the sidebar for details.)
There are those who continue to believe that political success in the nation's capital is wholly dependent on campaign contributions and fundraising. The BA has demonstrated that there is strength in numbers, and that boots on the ground, education, and relationship development are the real ingredients for success in Washington.
SETTING UP A CONGRESSIONAL VISIT
The following guidance is intended to assist BA members in arranging congressional visits to the local offices of members of Congress or to your facilities. It does not cover fundraising events. If you have specific questions on these issues, contact the Brewers Association staff.
State and district work periods (when Congress is not in session) provide excellent opportunities to meet your senators or representatives in their district offices or to invite them to visit your business. Americans expect to see their elected officials, and constituent contact is critical for a senator or representative to be effective. Check senate.gov and State and district work periods (when Congress is not in session) provide excellent opportunities to meet your senators or representatives in their district offices or to invite them to visit your business. Americans expect to see their elected officials, and constituent contact is critical for a senator or representative to be effective. Check senate.gov and house.gov for up-to-date schedules for work periods.
To schedule a meeting, preferably at your brewery:
- Call or e-mail the district or state office of your house member or senator. Direct the call or email to the district scheduling secretary or whoever is in charge of the calendar. (Put ATTN: Scheduling or Invitation in the subject line of e-mails.)
- If you have a brewpub, or if your brewery is open evenings or weekends, target those times for officials to visit, as they are often attending meetings or events on weekdays, often well into the evening.
- If you are successful in getting your senators or representatives to plan a visit, make some basic preparations with your employees. Think through a quick tour of your facility that will enable them to see the scope of your business activities and your employees at work (production, packaging, transportation, offices, kitchens, etc.).
- Make sure all employees are alerted about the visit. Urge them to be respectful whether or not they agree with every vote or position taken by their elected officials. Tell them not to be intimidated and to describe their role(s) in your business. Members of Congress need and want to hear from constituents gainfully employed in their state or district.
- Suggest to the district or state staff that press coverage or a photo may be appropriate to publicize the visit.
- In the course of the visit, feel free to explain your excise tax payment process and seek support for S. 1562 and H.R. 2903.
This article was originally published in the September/October 2016 issue of The New Brewer.
1 BA chief economist Bart Watson reports that 420 out of 435 congressional districts currently have a craft brewery.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.