When people think of the construction industry, the first thing that pops into their minds is likely a tower crane lifting steel beams 20 stories in the air, or a dump truck raising dust as it makes its way around traffic barricades and orange safety cones at the edge of a new stretch of highway.
Whatever picture comes to mind, it’s likely not a U.S. Senator’s office on Capitol Hill. However, the work done there by lobbyists who work to convince lawmakers and agency administrators to cast a vote or make a decision in their favor can impact the construction industry as much as — if not more than — anything in the field.
Lobbying efforts on the rise
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the construction industry spent more than $53 million on its 2015 lobbying efforts, with Caterpillar ($5.7 million), American Council of Engineering Companies ($1.7 million), Fluor Corp ($2.2 million), National Association of Home Builders ($3.4 million) and Lennox International ($660,000) leading each of the five subcategories (building materials and equipment, general contractors, construction services, home builders and special trade contractors).
Both private companies and special interest groups that lobby must navigate a complex set of recordkeeping and documentation requirements and must disclose all expenditures related to their efforts. When it comes to the issues, the industry most commonly spends its lobbying dollars on matters such as highway funding, tax policy, regulatory requirements and import-export regulations. However, those issues can change quickly depending on Congressional votes or newly introduced regulations.
Jeffrey Shoaf, senior executive director for government relations at the Associated General Contractors of America, said that due to Congress' "lackluster performance," regulatory agencies have been quicker to initiate new regulations. "So we do (more) lobbying on regulatory issues now than we used to," he said.
Jon Del Giorno, founding member of private lobbying and legal firm Pitta Bishop Del Giorno in New York City, said that whether or not his practice — which represents public and private union and trade associations at the city and state level — sees an uptick in lobbying activity is largely dependent on the issues of the day. "If you’re going to attack tax abatement for construction, then the unions are going to mobilize, and they spend money (on lobbying)," he said.
"We're an extraordinarily busy lobby shop," Jim Tobin, NAHB executive vice president and chief lobbyist, said. "The issues don’t go away, they just tend to ebb and flow from year to year depending on the priorities of Congress and the membership."
Shoaf added, "We spend a lot of time trying to explain to people how complex the construction industry is and how difficult it is to manage schedules that our members have put in place in order to be successful in the jobs that they do. The layers of paperwork they’re required to fill out for federal work can really be a land mine for someone who is not necessarily steeped in the federal rules."
Increased regulations = increased lobbying
Tobin took it one step further and said that despite friendly legislators and the generally bipartisan issues of construction and housing, "We’re fighting against an administration that is putting out what I think are anti-business regulations, knowing full well that Congress is paralyzed and can really do nothing about it."
Tobin cited the Waters of the U.S. rule as an example of gridlock. He said the NAHB team had been successful in opposing the rule in the House of Representatives but was a few votes short, so the rule remains in effect. "That’s our biggest challenge — an administration that has gravitated towards its base and a Congress that can do very little about it," he said.
Tobin, Shoaf and Del Giorno all said their lobbying methods include grassroots mobilization campaigns, telephone calls, emails, face-to-face meetings, "old fashioned shoe leather," or anything else that will enable them to get a shot at persuading a lawmaker in one direction or another.
"Lobbying has changed a lot," Tobin said, "but, at the end of the day, whatever tactic works to get your message across, you’ve got to be flexible enough and good enough at it to get your message heard and influence lawmakers."
The importance of education
Experts noted that education is one of the most important aspects of successful lobbying, as Del Giorno said education is probably "the vast majority" of lobbying. He said elected or government officials propose a variety of laws that are not often based on how a construction project works most efficiently. "It’s a balance. If you don’t educate officials, they put in all kinds of codes and regulations that are just not practical for what you have to do on the job," Del Giorno said.
Tobin noted that certain lawmakers will often look to the NAHB as a source of information, which he said is a primary lobbying tactic. "The NAHB has a wealth of knowledge, expertise and economic data that can help them inform their decisions and help them inform their constituents about what’s going on," he said.
"You try to make sure that the vast majority of what they’re hearing is from people who are really experts in the issue," Shoaf said. "They hear a lot from people who aren’t necessarily experts who have a solution to a perceived problem rather than a sound solution to a demonstrated, significant problem. They hear a lot of half-truths."
Roadblocks to successful efforts
But even with all the legwork, brainwork and late nights spent crafting a certain message, there’s no guarantee the target will bite.
Shoaf said the most frustrating situations occur when, despite the lobbyists' best efforts to educate, whoever they’ve approached with information about an issue is so vested in their current opinion that they won’t listen to another side. "It may or may not be well thought out, but maybe their side came up with it, and they’re part of that team so they have to play that team’s role," he said.
Del Giorno said educating lawmakers is a never-ending goal, as there are often new officials and legislators taking office. For example, he said that every so often, New York City will see a renewed push to prevent construction deliveries on the weekends. Del Giorno said that if the city’s layout and weekday traffic is considered, the proposal doesn't make sense and creates a greater chance for accidents. "Every couple of years, somebody proposes it," he said. "It’s an ongoing challenge."
Regardless of the other side’s reaction, Shoaf said, "It doesn’t take away the responsibility to get our interpretation of whatever they’re trying to do out there in front of them. We’ve got 26,000 members who are relying on us to help them understand what rules do, but also to make sure the rules actually serve a purpose and aren’t just an activity to keep regulators happy."
Del Giorno said he believes resistance from lawmakers is not usually a case of not listening but more a matter of the issues that are important to them. Certain council members or certain elected officials care about social services, some about consumer protection or aging. "Do they really want to know about construction? Do they really care about construction? Probably not," he said.
"They may be voting on education one minute and then on abortion the minute after that, and then they get to a construction issue five hours later," Shoaf said. In addition, like anyone else, lawmakers get tired too. "They don’t always have the time or inclination to listen to what you’re saying, but we try to get the message out there as best we can."
Keys to winning over lawmakers at all levels
Shoaf said a way to get through all the noise is to find receptive members of Congress — maybe lawmakers who have been in the construction industry before and who know their way around a job site. Shoaf said those individuals can become effective spokespeople for the right cause.
As for state and local lobbying, Shoaf and Tobin said their state chapters take charge. "We have a great group of chapters that are very involved in every state capital of the country," Tobin said. "They do somewhat the same thing we do, but they’re much closer to where the rubber meets the road."
Del Giorno said that whether a local, state or federal issue, it’s critical for lobbyists to learn as much about a client’s business as possible. "We learn their skills. We learn everything they do, and I think that’s what makes us successful because when you have to go out and put together a strategy, messaging or fact sheets, if you don’t know the business, you’re not going to do it right," he said.
Shoaf said lobbying comes down to being a reliable source of information and building a relationship based on that ability. "If you go into (a legislator’s) office, and you make a suggestion, or you make a claim about somebody else’s legislation, you better have the background information to back it up," he said. "We want to have credibility when we walk in the room and when we walk out of the room."