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May 5, 2017
Politics dominates the news, and not in a good way. Many people are turned off and are tuning out. Should businesses do the same, or is now the time to “lean in” and get involved?
Washington, D.C., may be becoming more business friendly, but Washington state isn’t. Should businesses refuse to engage, thinking they can’t do anything about it anyway, or try to have some influence in improving the business climate?
For a business to be successful it must have good working relationships with its bank, accountant, lawyer, vendors, subcontractors and clients. But government also plays a significant role in whether a company can be profitable.
Governments pass ordinances and legislation that impact taxes, the environment, labor and employment, and more touching nearly every facet of a company’s operation. In addition, unelected bureaucrats add more, often burdensome, regulations. Too often, a business owner who values good working business relationships fails to develop relationships with the elected officials in his/her local city, county, Olympia and Washington, D.C.
Many business owners think it is impossible to influence government, so they don’t even try. And, certainly in the current political climate it is tempting to believe that. But now is exactly the right time to get involved.
The business community has a key role to play in achieving good government by providing real-life examples of how the marketplace works and how proposed legislation would impact businesses that make the economy strong.
Often, legislators are trying to solve a real or perceived problem. They have good intentions, but many times don’t understand how the economy really works, and the legislation can end up with harmful and unintended consequences.
Most elected officials have never been a business owner; they don’t know what it means to sign the front of a paycheck. If company owners would engage in the legislative process, providing vital information, better legislation should result. Business owners and legislators should be partners in forming public policy regarding the economy, regulatory environment, taxes and employment law. But that is only possible if company owners, managers and employees engage in the government process.
How to get involved
While becoming involved in government takes time and often money it is worth making it a regular part of a business’s operations. It is helpful to realize there are two distinct elements of being involved in government: politics and legislative activity.
Politics is the selecting and electing of candidates a business owner thinks will more likely support policies helpful to creating a healthy business climate. Legislative activity is the introduction and passing or stopping of legislation.
Politics is a numbers game: dollars and votes. Business owners have several ways to get involved. Study the candidates and make a choice of the preferred candidate. Then, make a contribution, attend or host a fundraiser, or offer to help with the campaign. Because money is a critical factor in running a successful campaign, being a donor or volunteer helps get the ear of the legislator after the election. That’s a good start to a mutually beneficial relationship where a company owner can provide vital information on pending legislation.
Once a candidate becomes an elected official, the ways a business can participate in the process changes. Because of the volume of bills that are introduced, and the speed and complexity of the legislative process, many business owners depend on trade associations’ government affairs programs to inform them. Some are general business groups like the Association of Washington Business or National Federation of Independent Business, while many others are industry or profession specific, like Associated Builders and Contractors, Associated General Contractors, American Council of Engineering Companies, NAIOP and others.
Associations generally track legislation of interest for their members and notify the members when to contact their legislators and use services such as VoterVOICE to make that contact as easy as a click or two.
Associations often employ lobbyists who provide information and work to persuade legislators to vote in a way that the members of the association see as beneficial. Associations also often host events where its members can meet elected officials and develop or maintain relationships.
While business groups are often made up of competitors, when it comes to their government affairs efforts, the members come together.
“If we do not hang together, we shall surely hang separately.” Benjamin Franklin.
It is possible to develop relationships without joining a business group. A call to a legislator’s office to set up a meeting, either in the home district (even at the company’s location) or in the legislator’s office, may result in a bit of a scheduling challenge, but it’s a good way to get to know each other.
Contacting legislators often results in talking to their aides. Don’t hesitate to tell them what your concerns are or voice your opinion. Legislators are often in committee meetings or “on the floor” so they rely on their aides to be their eyes and ears. Aides are significant participants in the process so working with them is a valuable endeavor.
While business owners are often consumed with the demands of just running their companies, it is in their long-term interest to become actively involved in elections and the legislative process. Electing pro-business candidates makes the rest of the process easier, especially if there is a majority of pro-business people in office.
Better legislation can result from business owners viewing themselves as partners in the process by providing critical information about how legislation will really work or not in the business community. Developing relationships with government officials is just as important as knowing the other “partners” who impact the success of a business. It just takes a bit of time and money. But it is worth both.
“Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.” Pericles.
Wendy Novak is president/CEO of ABC of Western Washington. She has served many years on the ABC National Membership Professionals Council, chairing it for three years, and is a member of the American Society of Association Executives.