Importance of Government Relations Objectives to the Association
Wayne T. Curtin
In April 1999, the Motorcycle Riders Foundation was honored, for a second tim, for excellence in in government relations. The American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) presented the MRF with the Certificate Awared of Excellence in the Overall Program - Federal Legislative category. The following article is the text of the nomination which was submitted by Wayne Curtin on behalf of the MRF.
The sole purpose of the Motorcycle Riders Foundation (MRF) is to affect public policy as it relates to motorcyclists and motorcycles. In the mid-1980s the leadership of the various state motorcyclist associations, which had been around since the early 1970s, began to be concerned about the possibility of and need for dealing with federal legislation that impacted motorcyclists. In 1985, these leaders began hosting a national conference to educate motorcyclists on how to be more effective in their state legislatures. In 1986, the idea of establishing a national association and opening an office in Washington, DC, was introduced. In 1987, the Motorcycle Rights Fund (MRF) was incorporated as a 501(c)(4) not-forprofit association and fund raising was begun. In 1988, the name of the association was changed to the Motorcycle Riders Foundation, and with less than $30,000 in the bank, the MRF hired its first employee, Wayne T. Curtin, and opened its Washington, DC headquarters on November 8, 1988. In the ten years since, the MRF has had two primary functions (programs). One has been its educational program, which sponsors a national and several regional conferences every year, with its main purpose being the training and education of the leaders of state motorcyclist associations. The MRF's second, and primary program, is its government relations activity. There are three distinct components (state, federal and international) within the MRF's government relations program. It is the federal legislative program that is being nominated for this award.
Degree of Political Opposition
There have been varying degrees of opposition to the issues the MRF has advanced. Because of the nature of issues advocated by the MRF, for the most part that opposition has been considerable. Some issues, such as the repeal of the federal penalties on states without helmet laws, the banning of state lobbying activities by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and stopping OSHA restrictions on motorcyclists in the work place have drawn extremely heavy opposition from the Administration (the Secretary of DOT and the NHTSA Administrator became personally involved and lobbied members of Congress), members of Congress in committee leadership positions and well funded highway safety, medical and insurance interests. Other issues, such as the “outlaw motorcycle gang bill” and the ending of banning of motorcycles from federally funded highways and roads, involved considerable philosophical opposition that was based in members of Congress who were strategically well positioned to provide opposition and who the MRF had to negotiate with or “convince” to remove their opposition. Another category of strong opposition came from vying for limited resources for highway safety funding (402 funds) for motorcycle safety. The major opposition came from other safety groups (such as MADD) who were competing for limited funding. The opposition was not necessarily opposed to the program we wanted, but us getting the funds meant they got less. The last level of opposition, on issues such as ensuring motorcyclists access to HOV lanes and accommodation of motorcyclists needs and concerns in the Intelligent Highway System, was based in getting the attention of Congress and convincing members that on the surface the problem appeared small, yet it was of real importance and needed to be addressed. With very few exceptions, the legislative successes MRF has accomplished have involved overcoming well-funded opposition and also most involved opposition from the executive branch/administration.
Major Federal Legislative Accomplishments of MRF
1 In 1989 and 1990, defeated legislation to impose a penalty (withholding 10% of a state’s federal-aid highway funds) on states without motorcycle helmet laws.
2 After Senator DeConcini introduced the Outlaw Street and Motorcycle Gang Control Act of 1991, negotiations with Senator DeConcini resulted in his introduction of a new bill without references to motorcycles or motorcyclists and a new definition of “gangs” that focused on criminal activity versus appearance or mode of transportation.
3 Inclusion of a provision in the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) designating motorcycle safety as a priority in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Section 402 safety programs.
4 Inclusion of a provision in ISTEA that ensured motorcyclists access to all High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes nationally.
5 Though unable to completely stop a provision penalizing states without helmet laws from being included in ISTEA the original proposal of a 10% withholding of federalaid highway funds was reduced to a 3% transfer of construction funds to the state’s highway safety programs. The end result of this reduced penalty, where funds were reprogrammed not withheld, was that only one of the 26 states without helmet laws enacted a helmet law.
6 By mobilizing Congressional opposition in 1992, caused the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to abandon plans to implement a rule requiring employees riding motorcycles to wear a helmet even if state law did not require helmet use.
7 Due to controversy around the helmet law issue, congressional pressure resulted in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration dramatically increasing its helmettesting program and for the first time ever in 1994 and 1995 tested every helmet available for purchase.
8 Inclusion of a provision in the National Highway System Designation Act of 1995 that retroactively repealed the penalty on states without helmet laws that was enacted in 1991. The retroactive repeal meant that $200 million of the $250 million in sanctioned funds were returned to the control of the 25 penalized states for highway construction and maintenance uses.
9 Inclusion of a provision in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (The Kassebaum-Kennedy Bill) that, after June 30, 1997, will prohibit employer provided health care plans from denying benefits to motorcyclists.
10 Inclusion of a provision in the 1998 Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) that prohibits state and local governments from denying access to motorcycles on any highway or road that uses federal funds for its planning, design, construction, or maintenance.
11 Inclusion of a provision in TEA-21 that redefines Congress’ mandate to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) with respect to motorcycle safety. This provision added accident prevention to NHTSA’s prior mandate of only trying to prevent injuries and deaths resulting from accidents.
12 With the exception of a minor transfer of funds on open-containers in cars, which provided major spending loopholes, TEA-21 included no penalties or sanctions on states to coerce passage of “safety” laws. This was the first major highway bill since the 1970s to not include major sanctions.
13 Inclusion in TEA-21, for the first time ever, of performance based safety grants that rewarded states for reducing fatality rates, versus only giving grants based on passing certain laws.
14 Inclusion of a provision in TEA-21 that prohibits the NHTSA from lobbying and organizing lobbying activities at the state and local level.
15 Inclusion of a provision in TEA-21 that ensures the accommodation of the needs and concerns of motorcyclists in the development and implementation of the Intelligent Highway System and its components.
Identifying Emerging Issues
The prime example of the MRF's ability to identify emerging issues was its preparation for the 1998 TEA-21 legislation. Though this legislation was not expected to be taken up for consideration until early 1997, by March of 1996 the MRF staff had identified the issues they believed MRF should address in that legislation. This agenda was presented at the MRF's June 1996 board of directors meeting for approval. This early planning paid off when in early September of 1996 the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, on very short notice, decided to hold preliminary hearings on the highway reauthorization legislation to be taken up in 1997. Because approval of a legislative agenda had been obtained in June, instead of waiting for the fall meeting in late September, the MRF was prepared to testify at that hearing and get its agenda on the record very early in the process. This early identification of the emerging issues, resulting in getting those issues on the committee's agenda early, played a key role in the MRF obtaining every legislative goal it had for the TEA-21 legislation.
Responding in a Timely Manner
Two issues come to the forefront when looking at the MRF's ability to respond in a timely manner. One would be Senator DeConcini's introduction of the “Outlaw Street and Motorcycle Gang Control Act of 1991.” MRF had no idea he was introducing such a bill. MRF's membership was very concerned about the unnecessary references to motorcyclists. In MRF's opinion, all of the issues Senator DeConcini wished to address could be addressed without one reference to motorcycles if he just changed some of the language to focus on the criminal activity. By responding quickly with well reasoned, not emotionally charged, approaches MRF was able to convince Senator DeConcini to introduce a new bill (as his floor speech said) as “a substitute for” the original bill. The new legislation made no references to motorcycles or motorcyclists.
The second issue involved the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (Kassebaum-Kennedy Bill). For several years the issue of motorcyclists being denied health care insurance had been a growing concern for MRF. When it became apparent that the Kassebaum-Kennedy bill had a very good chance of passage, the MRF developed a strategy to have our concern dealt with in the legislation. MRF worked very closely with the House Ways and Means Committee (Chairman Archer and Rep. Crane) and with Senators Kassebaum, Kennedy,
Moseley-Braun, Coats and Campbell to ensure the issue was addressed in the legislation. MRF's ability to provide solid facts and address issues quickly was key to accomplishing this legislative goal once it became obvious the Kassebaum-Kennedy legislation was going to pass.
Innovative Use of Technology
Shortly after opening its office in 1988, the MRF established an extensive FAX ALERT system to notify its members, member associations and the motorcycle media about legislative issues. Though this may not seem innovative today, at the time MRF set up this system most fax machines still used rolls of thermal paper. Machines with large auto dial systems were rare and, if it existed at all, computer run broadcast fax systems were virtually unheard of. Even though MRF was operating on a budget of less than $50,000 at the time, a commitment to obtaining and using “cutting edge” technology was central to MRF's legislative strategy. By 1991, MRF's one-person staff was traveling a lot. So, MRF obtained a state-ofthe-art laptop, including broadcast fax capabilities, for use on the road. By, 1994 MRF was using the Internet to communicate with its members and do research. In early 1995, the MRF was the first national motorcyclist/motorcycle association to establish a website (http://www.mrf.org). The MRF has established an e-mail and fax network that allows its legislative action alerts to reach thousands of motorcyclists within hours of an event occurring. In turn, these individuals then implemented well-established phone trees and regular chapter meetings to disseminate the information to those members without e-mail or fax machines. The MRF understands that one of the keys to successful innovative use of technology is to understand that not everyone obtains new technology at the same time. Therefore, the MRF integrates new technology into its existing communication strategy, instead of falling into the trap of using new technology to replace old ways of communicating and losing communication with members.
The MRF has always developed its strategies internally and, with one unique exception, has not relied on the use of outside consultants. The unique exception involves the transition period of changing vice-president of government relations. The highway reauthorization legislation (TEA-21) was supposed to be completed and enacted by September 30, 1997. Based on that time line, in the summer of 1997, Wayne Curtin, the MRF's vice president of government relations since 1988, decided to leave the MRF at the end of 1997 to return to school to pursue a graduate education. When it became apparent that the TEA-21 legislation would not be completed before Wayne Curtin left the employment of MRF, the board of directors retained him as a consultant to provide support to his replacement, Steve Zimmer. This is the only case in its ten-year presence in Washington in which the MRF has hired a consultant.
One of the key strategies of the MRF is heavy reliance on member activity. One thing that has been a real asset to MRF is the fact that most of the state associations have been in existence since the early 1970s This means that there are well established political relationships with many members of Congress from their prior service in state government. As well, almost all of the state associations have very well organized political action programs that involve numerous volunteers in campaigns. To take advantage of this resource, MRF has established a process whereby every year the state associations send a delegation to Washington between January and March. The purpose of stretching out the visits, instead of having everyone come to a legislative summit, is multi-fold. First, by allowing the state association to pick the time of the trip, they can assemble the best group to represent the state association. Depending on the issue, they can make sure constituents from key committee members' districts are included and their trip is coordinated in a way as not to conflict with their state legislative needs. Second, since many of our member come in their motorcycle attire they stand out. Ten motorcyclists can look like 50, and that visual image over several months makes a unique impact. Third, by only having a few states in town at one time, MRF staff get an opportunity to spend more time with the members, which in addition to producing better legislative activism, results in more financial support from the state associations. Two results of this arrangement are that the MRF members are better educated on the issues and become more effective spokespersons. It also allows MRF lobbyists to attend most of the meetings. Not only does this help to make the connection between constituents and MRF in the minds of members of Congress; it also provides MRF lobbyists more direct contact. In addition, many times a member of Congress or staff will say something in a meeting that means little to the average person, but to a lobbyist closely following an issue is a key piece of information. Attendance by MRF lobbyists at virtually every meeting helps to increase MRF's access to information and effectiveness.
Effective Use of Resources
The MRF's budget in its first year of operation was less than $50,000. For the next five years the MRF operated on a budget of less than $100,000, and in 1991 survived despite the fact its president had been caught embezzling in excess of $40,000. Since 1994, the MRF's budget has ranged between $150,000 and $250,000. From 1988 until 1993, the MRF only had one employee. From mid-1993 until 1995 MRF had two employees. From 1995 until mid-1997 the MRF had three employees. Due to financial constraints, since mid-1997, MRF has maintained only two employees. In addition to the federal activities listed herein, the MRF maintains an active state legislative program and since 1995 has become involved in international issues. The MRF has learned well (if not perfected) the difficult task of maintaining an extremely effective organization on a low budget and with a small staff.
In its ten-year presence in the nation's Capitol the MRF has truly established itself as an effective lobbying organization. MRF's federal legislative program has been remarkable in its accomplishments, including winning ASAE's Excellence in Government Relations Award for Single Issue in 1996. The MRF has had legislative successes in the very diverse areas of highway safety, personal liberty, law enforcement and discrimination issues; health care discrimination, labor issues (OSHA), redirecting the actions/activities of regulatory agencies; technology development policies, highway access and state and federal relationships (state's rights). In order to be successful, this small shop has developed strong relationships across such diverse committees as the Senate committees on 1) Appropriations, 2) Commerce, Science and Transportation, 3) Environment and Public Works, 4) Judiciary and 5) Labor and Human Resources, while working with the House committees on 1) Appropriations, 2) Commerce, 3) Education and the Workforce, 4) Judiciary, 5) Rules, 6) Science, 7) Transportation and Infrastructure, and 8) Ways and Means. To be as successful as the MRF has been, across such a wide range of issues and with very limited resources, is why I believe, and hope you will find, MRF is worthy of the ASAE's Excellence in Government Relations Award for Overall Government Relations Program.