A fellow Illinois lumber dealer and veteran of legislative action, Dan Welty of Jones-Berry Lumber, taught me early on about the importance of visiting your legislators. Over a Guinness at the Dubliner, an Irish pub near the Capitol building where Dan and I were discussing my very first Hill visits that I took during the National Lumber and Building Material Dealers Association (NLBMDA) Legislative Conference in 2001 on behalf of Edward Hines Lumber Co. and dealers across Illinois and the country, Dan told me a story about sitting in an Illinois legislator's office waiting to discuss an issue impacting his lumberyard. When the door opened, the legislator appeared with two other constituents who were obviously on the other side of Dan's issue. According to Dan, it was at that moment he realized how many people have the ears of our representatives, and therefore how important it is to raise your voice and make sure your side of the story is heard.
I have not been attending the NLBMDA Legislative Conference for too long—it's only been five years since that Guinness at the Dubliner and my first steps onto Capitol Hill—but in that short time I have become a believer in the process. Like the lumber business itself, you learn lessons in the presence of veterans like Dan Welty who take the time to pass their knowledge on to the rookies.
Rick Baumgarten, with Lee Lumber in Chicago and a former chairman of NLBMDA, also taught me a great deal about making a difference in Washington, particularly when it comes to framing the issues for legislators. When Rick and I brought up the dealer impact of Canadian softwood tariffs to one congressman in 2001, we could see there was little interest. But then Rick reframed the issue as one that drastically affected affordable housing, explaining that we estimated that the tariff added $2,500 to $4,000 to the price of a home, critically affecting the 500,000 Illinois consumers who don't qualify for loans. We got his attention from that point on.
I applied these strategies when I hit Capitol Hill again this year as part of NLBMDA's 2006 Legislative Conference April 3–5. I was particularly excited about gaining support for Retailer Liability Relief, legislation that is being introduced to Congress directly by NLBMDA. Retailer Liability Relief will cover dealers against frivolous lawsuits like the real-life case of an Illinois dealer selling a circular saw to a customer and later being sued when that customer cut his own finger off.
I know the going will be tough, but I also know that one extra person and one extra voice can always make a difference. There will always be opponents that are trying to get the issues swayed in a direction opposite from ours as an industry. If there are things about legislative action that are the same as working at a lumberyard, it's that the experience is always rewarding and that every time you turn around there is still plenty of work yet to do!
I, for one, intend to lend the power of both my voice and my vote to gain even more support for our industry's issues. Especially if you are a rookie to legislative action, I encourage you to get on board and do the same. I'd be happy to share even more veteran experience with you.