At the NARI Fall Leadership Summit 2013, NARI lobbyist Chris Spear and Bill Malkasian, vice president of strategic political planning for the National Association of Realtors, joined forces to shine a light on the ins and outs of an effective government affairs program.
The pair spent their 75-minute session, “The Value of a Government Affairs Program,” discussing the answers to three questions:
- Why do NARI and its members need advocacy in Washington?
- What strategies do associations consider in advancing their positions and agendas in Washington?
- How can NARI and its members more effectively engage and participate in Washington?
Spear started by addressing a basic question: What exactly do the American people pay members of Congress to do?
“Their core job is to pass spending bills,” he says. “These deal with a variety of legislative, programmatic and regulatory issues.”
As to why NARI needs an advocacy presence in the nation’s capital, Spear pointed to a variety of concerning issues that are in play now or will be coming into play in the near future. One point of vulnerability is the growing drumbeat to eliminate the mortgage interest deduction (MID).
“Governments are cash-starved, and the MID yields about $70 billion,” he says. “That money could be used to fund some pretty big-ticket items.”
“Real estate as a special interest and the MID were always sacrosanct because home ownership is a foundation of communities, but today no group is safe in D.C.,” Malkasian says. “Because governments need money so badly, real estate is no longer safe at the state, county or even the city council level.”
To help NARI members better understand the role government affairs plays, Spear suggested thinking of advocacy as a form of marketing. “[Lobbyists] take your issues, lay out a strategy and wrap that strategy around ways to get your issues in front of key legislators,” he says. “In my business, if you don’t leverage every tool you have, you get eliminated from the national discussion quickly.”
“If you don’t involve yourself as an association in the election of Congress members, you are taking away half of Chris’ firepower on your behalf right there,” Malkasian added. “How many of you remember your first business customer? Well, politicians do, too. If NARI is not there for legislators during their campaigns, you won’t be a player in your statehouse or Washington.
“You may not like to hear this, but I can guarantee you that legislator’s first question to his or her staff member before meeting with you will be whether NARI helped during the last re-election campaign.”
For the National Association of Realtors and other associations, political action committees (PACs) are a key method of becoming involved politically and furthering their collective agenda. When several audience members expressed their distaste openly, Malkasian pointed out that PACs are intended to level the playing field and protect the political process from excessive commercialization. “Writing a PAC check gives you access to discussing issues of importance with candidates and elected officials,” he said. “Writing a PAC check does not buy you a vote.”
NARI does not have a PAC, but it can still be involved politically, Spear said.
“There is nothing more effective than meeting face-to-face with an elected official,” he says. “Even without a PAC, I’m still meeting with members of Congress on NARI’s behalf. But if I can go to them and show them that X number of NARI members were sufficiently concerned about Y issue to write a letter, that helps.”
An audience member asked Spear to assign a letter grade to NARI members’ response to a July Call to Action. In this effort, NARI members were asked to contact members of Congress regarding H.R. 2093, the Lead Exposure Reduction Amendments Act of 2013. After some thought, Spear concluded that the effort warranted a grade of C+.
“To be honest, that response rate needs improvement,” he says. “If the NARI staff asks for your help on a specific issue like this, that means we really need it.”
In Malkasian’s experience, a lukewarm member response like this is typical for an association that doesn’t yet have a clear vision of government affairs.
“Many members don’t wake up to the importance of a given issue until it becomes transactional for them—say, one of their deals falls apart due to EPA regulations,” he says. “That’s when people start taking advocacy seriously. By then, your group is 28th on the list, and the 27 groups ahead of you have already been involved, so they are already being listened to. But it’s never too late to get started.”—Darcy Lewis
To read NARI’s Federal Advocacy Priorities and the issues being followed by NARI’s Government Affairs Committee, visit NARI’s new online advocacy tool.