Visits to the Hill allow small-business owners to distribute crucial information to legislators

Visits to the Hill allow small-business owners to distribute crucial information to legislators

The late, great Speaker of the House Tip O’Neal used to say, “All politics is local.” While he was talking about how concerns of small-town America can have an effect on their elected leaders, the reverse also is true. Political issues in Washington can have a significant impact on individual businesses, like foodservice distribution, around the country. The International Foodservice Distributors Association, or IFDA, spends a good deal of time and effort trying to educate pols about distributor issues in order to mitigate the effect of legislation that would impede local business performance.

One of the initiatives involves distributors themselves. For the past two decades, members of IFDA have been going to Capitol Hill during an annual event called Day in Washington. IFDA staff schedules meetings between distributor executives and members of Congress from their respective states. The goal is to help senators and representatives understand the impact that specific legislation and regulations would have on the distribution business.

IFDA’s Jon Eisen, senior vice president of government relations, says they try to narrow the focus to specific issues. In June distributors went to Hill visits armed with a leave-behind brochure that describes IFDA’s position on four issues: the Employee Free Choice Act, food safety, 3 percent withholding and LIFO repeal. Details can be found at ifdaonline.org.

I attended several of these Days in Washington in the past and was appalled to see how little understanding there is in general on the Hill of what distributors actually do. When lawmakers don’t understand how an industry operates, they are likely to make laws that are not in the best interest of progress and profitability.

Mac Sullivan, president and chief executive of Pate Dawson, a $210 million distributor in Goldsboro, N.C., has been attending the Days for a number of years. He agrees with me about the dearth of understanding and adds that few people in Congress have ever actually run a business.

Sullivan emphasizes how important it is to find a way to reach the legislators. Engaging in face-to-face dialog is the best way, he says, particularly if your position is opposed to that of well-heeled lobbyists.

When I asked him if he had seen any positive results of the meetings he has attended, Sullivan said he was “thrilled and surprised” to find that one member of Congress he had been calling on since ’07 has changed his mind on EFCA. The bill as written essentially would eliminate the secret ballot for union organizing by requiring companies to recognize and bargain with a union if a majority of employees sign union authorization cards. The act would eliminate the right to a federally supervised secret-ballot election to determine if a workplace is unionized.

The member of Congress in question originally supported the bill, but after much discussion has come to oppose it. Sullivan believes that most distributors, like Pate Dawson, pay their employees well already and provide good benefits.

Whatever side of an issue you are on, it’s important to encourage direct communication on the pros and cons. Eisen says the Hill meetings often result in further contact, with legislators visiting distributor facilities to see firsthand how the business works. Our industry is all about relationships. It’s good to hear about programs like Day in Washington that builds relationships with our lawmakers.