How To Influence Beer Legislation
If you’re a regular reader of this magazine, it probably makes your blood boil whenever some neo-Prohibitionist equates beer with crack cocaine or blames your favorite beverage for all of society’s ills. How do you respond when some anti-alcohol think tank calls for doubling the beer tax or restricting beer advertising?
Why not let your elected officials know what’s on your mind?
“Your first step in having an influence is getting to know the official on your home turf,” says Daniel Bradford, president of the Brewers’ Association of America, which represents the country’s small- and medium-sized brewers. “Find out where the local office is and visit it. Take an interest in getting to know the staff members at the local office. Explain your interest in beer and find out what the elected official’s sentiments are on that and other subjects. Request to be on their mailing list and read the stuff they send you. Attend any open forums or open houses and make yourself known.”
You can also write.
David Rehr, president of the National Beer Wholesalers Association in Alexandria, VA, is regarded as one of the nation’s most influential lobbyists. As a former congressional staff member, he knows which missives will catch your congressman’s eye, and which letters will wind up in a circular metal file amid the apple cores and pencil shavings.
Rules for Writing to Congress
1. Make sure you get the title, spelling and address right! “Don’t call a congressman (a member of the House of Representatives) a senator, or a senator a congressman,” Rehr warns. A list of your state’s members of Congress can be found by accessing the website, http://congress.org.
2. Be clear and concise. Don’t start with a detailed account of how your uncle and the congressman worked together mowing lawns 40 years ago. Instead, begin with “I am writing to ask you to support (or oppose) the following measure for the following reasons.”
3. Tell the most compelling story you can. “Most likely, the people who will read your letters are 21- to 28-year-old congressional staffers,” notes Rehr. “Ask yourself what can I do to sway them to my side?” Don’t write, “If you see the beer industry as important to Americaº.” Instead, describe how a particular piece of legislation will affect you or your business.
4. Be sure to ask for a response.
5. Follow up to the follow-up. “Ninety-five percent of the time, you send a letter, they send one back, and the correspondence ends,” says Rehr. “They will be stunned if you write back.” If your representative or senator is evasive, ask for a clarification. If he or she takes an anti-beer stance, counter with your own arguments. If they agree to support your position, thank them.
More Influential Tips
It’s important to express gratitude to those lawmakers who support the brewing industry, stresses Rehr. “All most people do is bitch and whine!” As this is being written, 223 members of the US House of Representatives, a record number, have agreed to cosponsor H.R. 1305, a bill to roll back the federal excise tax on beer to pre-1991 levels. You can bet that MADD and similar organizations are pressuring those members to reverse their stance.
Even if your elected official routinely backs neo-Prohibitionist causes, it’s still useful to write, asserts Rehr. “They need to know they have opponents out there. Most elected officials don’t like to be confronted by people. You might not change their mind, but you can make them less of an activist.”
Suppose you’re taking a trip to Washington during cherry blossom season, and you’d like to pop in to visit your congressman or senator. Give them plenty of lead time, advises Rehr. “If you let them know on Monday you’ll be coming on Friday, you’ll probably get a staff member.”
But even that is not necessarily bad.
“Remember that often times the key individuals in politics are the legislative aides,” asserts Bradford. “They can make a profound difference in getting the message through to the official. A quick call to your good friend can get your call answered in DC.”
If you run a brewery or distributorship or retail outlet, consider inviting your congressional official over the next time he or she is back in the home district.
In confronting your legislators, be persistent, urges Rehr—but not “nuts persistent.” If you can’t get your official to agree with you, don’t call him a @%!!&#% communist or threaten to stalk her like a dog. You’ll accomplish nothing, and you may get yourself in trouble.
But don’t be intimidated, either, Rehr adds. In addressing brewers and wholesalers on how to deal with Congress, Rehr advises, “When you’re about to make a pitch to your legislator, think, ‘He eats with a fork just like I do.’”
Greg Kitsock is editor of Mid-Atlantic Brewing News, a long-time resident of Washington, DC, and a frequent contributor to beer-related publications