This year’s Capitol Summit, held April 15-17 in Washington D.C., brought to mind the 1964 song “A Change is Gonna Come” by the great Sam Cooke. “It’s been a long time coming, … but I know a change is gonna come,” he sang.
After two days of joining outdoor leaders in lobbying meetings with members of Congress and staff, it was clear to SNEWS® that folks on “The Hill” are hoping for big changes in government funding when the new president is sworn into office, be it Clinton, Obama or McCain.
At a breakfast held during the Summit, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) told members of the outdoor industry and the National Parks Conservation Association that the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) has been “thrown overboard” by the Bush Administration. However, he added, “With a new president, we have a better chance to deal with bigger issues, such as re-baselining.” Basically, this means rearranging priorities and re-setting the base funding levels for things such as the LWCF, which provides funds to federal agencies and states to acquire and develop outdoor recreation areas and facilities.
If there is a big adjustment to funding priorities, OIA said it wants to be in the thick of things. “One of our strategies is to give a vision of what the recreation infrastructure needs to look like to support our economics,” said OIA President Frank Hugelmeyer. “We have a responsibility to bring that vision to the next administration, and we’re beginning to work on that.”
On the final day of the Summit, Kathy Kiely, a reporter for USA Today who has covered the White House since 1980, told attendees, “This election is really about change. There’s a real hunger to shake things up.”
While there is great anticipation to see what changes may come, Congress appears to be in a wait-and-see mode as Bush’s lame-duck status, the down economy, and a contentious political climate continue to stall all sorts of legislation. During last year’s Capitol Summit the outdoor industry made great breakthroughs in gaining better access to members of Congress and making its voice heard, SNEWS® experienced during its participation. This spring, lobbying teams received another warm welcome, and OIA’s issues were well-known to members of Congress. But Summit attendees, speakers and organizers said it felt like a “bridge” year with people realizing little might be achieved in the immediate future. All agreed though that it was important for the outdoor industry to have a presence and push its issues so that it would retain its seat at the table when the new administration arrives.
Nevertheless, Hugelmeyer told SNEWS®, “A lame duck session is not just a sit-and-wait session. The last time there was a lame-duck Congress, it not only passed the permanent funding of the Stateside LWCF for the first time in history, but we had the duty reduction on performance footwear. “
This year, Summit attendees were asking Congress to commit $125 million to the Stateside LWCF, which supports recreation areas near communities. Members of the lobbying teams reiterated this program is important because so many people, especially kids, get their first taste of the outdoors in a park near their home rather than remote forest. Members of Congress and their staff reacted to this request with nods of understanding, but it was generally understood that not much would happen in the nation’s current economic and political climate.
Still, some issues important to the outdoor industry seem to have some real steam, the event revealed. In meeting after meeting SNEWS® attended, Democratic and Republican members of Congress voiced support for the National Park Service Centennial Challenge project. Now in its second year, this provides $100 million a year for 10 years to repair national parks, hire more rangers and fund educational programs. The initiative also matches funds from the public, making this a $2 billion initiative. If one were to describe the plight of recreation funding as a forest fire, the Centennial Challenge is the final firebreak—a place where the outdoor industry and Summit attendees agree the country should draw the line and protect some of the most valued public lands in the country. Members of Congress seemed to understand that neglecting our most highly recognized treasures does not reflect well on anyone.
Another of the outdoor industry’s main talking points this year -- the FLAME Act – also seems to be building solid support. The FLAME Act reduces the burden on the USDA Forest Service to fund fire-suppression activities by establishing a federal fund for catastrophic, emergency wildfires. About 48 percent of the USDA Forest Service budget goes to fighting fires, and huge, unexpected burns have diverted money that would normally go to other programs, including recreation.
In addition to the FLAME Act and LWCF, lobbying teams talked with members of Congress about the current high tariff on performance outerwear (the tariff level ranges from 7 percent to 28 percent, depending on the product). The outdoor industry is asking that the tariff be eliminated, as there is no U.S. production of this type of apparel. The legislation to remove the tariff also allows a 1.5-percent charge on performance outerwear to fund U.S. development of new textile technologies and more sustainable textile manufacturing practices.
All in all, organizers said this year’s Capitol Summit represented another solid step in the steady push for change. “Finally, after 10 to 15 years of doing this consistently, we’re seeing a change in the level of meetings we’re having and the duration of high-level meetings,” Hugelmeyer told SNEWS®. “They (members of Congress) remember the issues, and there’s an understanding of who we are that didn’t exist even three or four years ago.”
Other notable happenings
- OIA held the first fundraiser for its new political action committee OIAPAC on April 15. More than 20 Summit attendees pitched into to raise $23,000 for the PAC, which will support candidates whose views on policies and voting records are in line with OIA’s policy agenda. Hugelmeyer told SNEWS® that the goal is for the PAC to eventually have $100,000, and it will begin making campaign contributions in August.
- OIA presented its Friends of the Outdoor Industry Award to Sen. Gordon Smith (R-OR) and Rep. Mark Udall (D-CO). Sen. Smith was a lead sponsor of the Affordable Footwear Act, a piece of legislation to eliminate duties on several types of outdoor footwear. SNEWS® was on hand for the presentation to Mark Udall, who introduced a provision into the House Energy bill that would give recreation permit holders advanced notice of proposed oil leasing that would impact their operations. A dozen or so Summit attendees piled into his office and presented Udall (sporting black cowboy boots, by the way) with a snazzy framed picture of two hikers sitting next to a desert arch at sunset.