It was a scene straight out of the movies: Mr. Smith came to Washington (actually, John Smith of Texas, from Foxworth-Galbraith Lumber Co.) to speak with Congressional members and government officials.

So did Bob Kerr from Oregon—he's been coming every March for 20 years—Harold Baalmann from Kansas, Matt Peterson of California, Dan Welty of Illinois, and 186 other members of the National Lumber and Building Material Dealers Association (NLBMDA) who joined us for the annual Legislative Conference, an event that gives dealers the opportunity to visit with their congressional representatives to discuss industry issues face-to-face.

Looking toward the future, several NLBMDA members brought their sons and daughters, the next generation of dealers. They got a closer look at the political process and a stronger link to the future of their families' businesses. Jim Van Landingham and his daughter, Susie, of Builders Supply Co. in Petersburg, Va., and Scott Yates from Denver Lumber Co. in Colorado and his son, Sam, a college freshman, were two of the family teams.

On Monday morning, attendees heard from John Henshaw, assistant secretary of labor in charge of OSHA. Henshaw showcased a new alliance between OSHA and the NLBMDA that will develop new safety standards and training programs to help our members meet those standards. This alliance will be a real benefit to the industry.

NLBMDA legislative specialists then briefed members on the group's most pressing issues: asbestos liability reform, permanent elimination of the estate tax, establishing cooperatives of small businesses to make it easier to buy group health insurance, bankruptcy reform, and ensuring free trade for Canadian softwood lumber. Another high priority is reforming the laws surrounding product liability lawsuits—transferring class action suits from state to federal courts to prevent jurisdiction “shopping,” limiting the amounts of attorney's fees, and capping judgments. This bill failed by one vote last year and is expected to come before Congress shortly.

After the briefings, NLBMDA members went to Capitol Hill to meet with their representatives. Most spent a day and a half to two days advocating for their positions. The dealers from Ohio spent three days on the Hill and met with their entire 20-member congressional delegation.

In Washington, competing voices try to exert some influence on proposed laws and regulations. We need to be part of those discussions, and the Legislative Conference is one of our major efforts. Each year, the commitment the dealers make is impressive. This grassroots activity, where constituents meet their representatives face-to-face, can have a far greater impact than all the lobbyists in DC. And it is critical for NLBMDA's national staff to be able to remind a senator or congressperson that there are, say, 15 association members in their district, representing more than 300 jobs, and so on. As the late former Speaker of the House Thomas P. “Tip” O'Neill was fond of saying, “All politics is local.”

Other ways to remain involved include inviting your representatives to lunch or a company tour when they are back in the district; encouraging your employees to register to vote; and responding to action alerts sent out by national staff with your e-mails and faxes. (We no longer recommend letters because of security issues, which can delay mail to Congress as much as six to eight weeks. But congressional staffers still answer the phone and log in every e-mail, fax, and call regarding a specific bill.)

We'll help you get started. We can set up appointments and help demystify the regulatory process. We too are only a phone call or e-mail away.

Shawn Conrad is president of NLBMDA in Washington, D.C. 800.634.8645. E-mail: