Issue Date: July 27, 2009
SOCMA Brings Its Members To Town
Democracy implies open access to elected lawmakers. But for chemical companies, gaining that access generally requires full-time staff in Washington, D.C.—people familiar with the protocols of Capitol Hill and who have the right connections among senators, representatives, and their staffs. Because only the largest companies can afford that kind of presence, most chemical producers rely on trade organizations to make their voices heard.
The Society of Chemical Manufacturers & Affiliates (SOCMA), based in Washington, has begun bringing the actual voices of its members, among which are many small fine and specialty chemical companies, to the nation's capital to meet with lawmakers. SOCMA's second annual "fly-in," held on June 3, brought 19 company executives to Washington to meet with 32 politicians from 13 states and discuss how pending legislation on pollution control, chemical site security, and workers' rights is likely to impact their operations.
Fly-ins are a staple in Washington, with groups ranging from the National Council of Jewish Women to the Jonesboro, Ark., Chamber of Commerce milling about the halls outside congressional offices. Although SOCMA cosponsored a 1998 "mega fly-in" with the American Chemistry Council, the U.S. trade group for major chemical makers, the association coordinated its own annual day in Washington only last year.
"In 2007, we anticipated a political climate change in Washington that was, at minimum, somewhat questionable," recalls William E. Allmond IV, vice president of government relations at SOCMA and the head of the organization's team of eight full-time lobbyists. SOCMA, he says, foresaw an incoming Administration and Congress with an active regulatory agenda that would impact industry, especially in areas such as emission control and product safety. "We determined that we need to get members involved in helping our lobbyists get their message to Washington," he says.
That message revolves around the impact of regulation on small firms. "Not all companies are multinational, multi-billion-dollar companies," Allmond says. "There are specialty firms and small businesses." It is important, he notes, for such firms to counter the assumption that they can absorb major new regulations adopted for large companies.
"Our goal in every meeting is to paint a picture that is a little different than the one most legislators think of when they think of the chemical industry," Allmond says. The executives who participated in this year's event were up for that challenge.
Steel Hutchinson, chief executive officer of GFS Chemicals, a Columbus, Ohio-based inorganic chemicals maker, agrees that now is a good time for SOCMA members to get more directly involved in the cause of the small producer. He points to the cap-and-trade legislation designed to stem greenhouse gas emissions, which he says could raise energy costs for small producers, and to changes to the chemical plant security reauthorization bill in the House, which since the fly-in has been amended to include guidelines for inherently safer technologies and a provision for civil litigation against producers (C&EN, July 20, page 33).
Hutchinson, whose family-owned firm employs about 85 people at its one site, has in the past had "some interaction" with Rep. Patrick J. Tiberi (R-Ohio) and former Ohio Republican Sen. Mike DeWine. But he sees the fly-in as a means of gaining more routine access to the politicians most influential in forming legislation. "My feeling is that if you see policies coming down the pike that will adversely affect your business and employees, you have an obligation to go to D.C. and meet with legislators," Hutchinson says.
Hutchinson ended up meeting with the staffs of Sen. George V. Voinovich (R), Sen. Sherrod Brown (D), and Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy (D), all of Ohio, during June's fly-in.
Andrew Harris, CEO of Syrgis Performance Products, based in Covington, Ky., met personally with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the staffs of Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and Rep. Geoff Davis (R-Ky.), and others.
"These were power meetings," Harris says. "And the SOCMA government relations people did a very good job preparing us with talking points, the history on bills, who backs them, and what drives them." The association, he adds, employed webinars and met with delegates the night before their meetings to prepare them. Top issues, he says, were site security, reform of the Toxic Substances Control Act, and the Employee Free Choice Act. The latter had included a provision known as "card check" that would have established an open ballot in union voting. Card check was eliminated from the bill earlier this month, largely in response to industry lobbying efforts.
John C. Wetzel, director of marketing and sales for specialties manufacturer WeylChem, met with legislators and staffs from South Carolina, where the German firm has its U.S. headquarters, and Georgia, where the company runs a plant. Like others, he commends SOCMA for its work in preparing him for his meetings but emphasized that he was able to pursue his own concerns because the meetings were not scripted. "On the top of my list was establishing a more cooperative relationship with the Environmental Protection Agency," he says.
"The topic of jobs got a lot of attention," says Richard L. Monty, executive vice president for environment, health, and safety at Ohio-based Hexion Specialty Chemicals. Monty met with Sen. McConnell and the staffs of Voinovich, Brown, and Kilroy. "I think we got a variable level of interest and perception," he says. "Voinovich's and Brown's staffers seemed intent, even though one is a Republican and one a Democrat, on nailing down the technical aspects of our presentation. Kilroy's staffers were less active questioners and better listeners."
Getting the executives on the same page was not much of a challenge, Monty says. "As you might imagine, most of the chemical reps that were part of the process are pretty much of a like mind on most of these issues," he says.
Hexion, with annual sales of $6 billion and 45 plants in the U.S., is one of the largest companies in SOCMA. Still, Monty says, it does not have a full-time government affairs staff.
"This is not the type of access that we could pursue on our own," says Brant Zell, head of quality and environmental, health, and safety compliance at Riverside, Pa.-based Cherokee Pharmaceuticals. Zell, who chairs SOCMA's bulk pharmaceuticals task force, a committee including members involved in contract manufacturing of active pharmaceutical ingredients, also attended last year's event.
The 2008 meeting produced results, he says, referring to the Food Safety Enhancement Act, a bill designed to ensure both food and drug safety that went on to deal only with food. "We wanted to make sure Congress knew the drug part was important," Zell says, describing a meeting with the staff of Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) last year. "They gave us a good explanation of why food and drugs were separated and said a separate bill on drugs is coming. We gave them feedback on a draft for the drug part, and they incorporated 70% of our input in the draft."
Paul Tencher, communications director for Rep. Kilroy, says meeting with SOCMA member companies helped open lines of communication. "These kinds of visits affect Congresswoman Kilroy's decision-making, and I think she was responsive," he says. Kilroy, he notes, visited GFS several days after the meeting.
According to Tencher, a focal point of the meeting was the chemical security reauthorization bill. "Mr. Hutchinson had some concerns over the security bill that was going to be voted on in committee," he says. Even though the bill passed and Kilroy voted for it, "she really listened to his concerns, I think," Tencher says.
Hutchinson says he was not discouraged by the vote. "She had only been to one other chemical plant in her life," he says of Kilroy. "From our standpoint, this gives us an opportunity to educate. I did not have a sense that I could convince her to become a Republican, but we were able to lay the groundwork" for that education.
Monty says such engagement may pay off over time. "The lesson I came away with is that, whereas we are not going to have a ton of capability as an average member of SOCMA to sway political opinions one way or another, it is really important to get your people engaged," he says. "I really believe some staffers will remember our sessions, and we may have given a key staff person a perspective that he or she may not have considered before. We really should not take a pass on an opportunity like that."
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