President Obama speaks in front of the Key Bridge in November 2011, urging Congress to pass the infrastructure piece of the American Jobs Act. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)
It’s not every day that you’ll find the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO agreeing completely on an issue. But in 2011, there they were, chamber President Tom Donohue and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, testifying before a Senate committee in favor of a new surface-transportation bill, and even suggesting a new gas tax may be in order.
“The fact that Tom Donohue and I appear before you today does not mean that hell has frozen over or unicorns are now roaming the land,” Trumka said. “We both realize that our country needs to step up our investment in America for business as well as for working Americans to succeed.”
Certainly, labor, business, and trade groups have significant differences on matters of transportation policy, regulation, and where to put resources. But in this field, it’s not uncommon to find opposite sides of K Street agreeing on the need to spend money on infrastructure.
And yet, one thing has become clear in recent years: A united front is not always enough to get what you want.
“We could be the greatest lobby in the world, but look at this Congress,” said Janet Kavinoky, the chamber’s transportation and infrastructure executive director. “We could be lock-step across the board on hundreds of issues outside of transportation and inside of transportation and infrastructure, but until Congress gets to a point where it’s a bit more functional, we’re going to keep trying.”
She added: “Some forces are bigger than you are.”
Getting a long-term bill to pay for infrastructure and put money into the Highway Trust Fund has been a tall order for K Street, at a time when broader debates over the role of the federal government and spending have made even passing innocuous legislation a challenge.
“We’re facing the same issue everybody else is…. How do you actually get stuff done in Washington?” Kavinoky said.
It’s not that the transportation lobby doesn’t wield influence. In 2012, more than $242 million was spent on transportation lobbying, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. More than 700 different organizations and entities, including business and trade groups, states, universities, and cities, all lobbied on the House highway bill. The transportation industry also donated $35 million to congressional Republicans in the 2012 election cycle and $13 million to congressional Democrats.
But the highway bill signed into law by President Obama in June 2012 wasn’t the outcome many had hoped for; rather than the traditional five-year bill, which allows for the planning and phasing required by large infrastructure projects, it provided funding for only two years, setting up another fight in 2014.
“We all say it, we all believe it, but getting it done—until we can figure out a way to bring consequences to the discussion, and what I mean by that is political consequences, I think its going to continue to be short-term bills,” said Ed Wytkind, president of AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department.
Infrastructure has drawn pragmatic Republicans and Democrats together in the past, but crossing party lines in the current climate has become increasingly fraught for some Republicans, who become vulnerable to attacks that they are not conservative enough if they don’t vote to cut spending.
Traditional lobbying alone hasn’t proven effective in moving lawmakers more fearful of a primary challenge than Washington interest groups. “All these groups have a significant amount of political muscle, but they’re all flexing that muscle within the Beltway,” said Jeff Loveng of SBL Strategies. “You have members of Congress not as responsive to that political muscle as previous ones.”
K Street isn’t without outside-the-Beltway efforts; for instance, the Americans for Transportation Mobility Coalition, an umbrella group of labor, business, and trade organization, disseminates information among various national and state advocates as part of issue campaigns.
Loveng, former chief of staff for House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster, R-Pa., helped start the 501(c)(4) America’s Infrastructure Alliance this year to advocate solely outside the Beltway for infrastructure investment.
The group, which has a budget of roughly $1.5 million, is conducting message testing and polling in preparation for a campaign in September, when it plans to roll out advertising connected to infrastructure legislation. The idea is to educate voters within particular districts, using messages that match their politics.
Issue advocacy for many industries has increasingly turned into campaign-style efforts to motivate grassroots support, rather than backroom dealing.
“We’ve always talked about it in terms of billions and trillions, and those are really big numbers for the general public to get their brains around,” “In today’s world, I believe you need to get the public on your side,” said Beth McGinn, director of public affairs for the American Road & Transportation Builders Association. “You’ve got to get that grassroots support.”
As McGinn put it, advocates should try to explain their work in “kitchen-table talk. What does it mean for the average American?”