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American Boating Congress 2017: New administration, new opportunities

By Jonathan Sweet

ABC 2017 offers industry fresh look at policy, issues

With a new presidential administration and 62 new members of Congress, the 2017 edition of the American Boating Congress will be one of the most important in years.

“It’s a critical year because this is a fresh start,” said Nicole Vasilaros, NMMA’s vice president of federal and legal affairs. “This is an administration that doesn’t have the political history that previous administrations had. There’s a lot of education that needs to happen, so coming to ABC this year is probably more crucial than ever so that we’re educating the folks in the administration as to why boating matters.”

ABC is organized by NMMA and co-hosted by (as of early March) 25 other organizations and associations, including Boating Industry.

The lobbying and education efforts that happen now help to set the agenda and priorities for the next two years and beyond.

“With so many new members in Congress, anytime you have a switch, you’re going to have staffing turnover,” Vasilaros said. “It’s really important we have strong attendance, with a variety of people coming from around the country to tell that story … early on.”

As part of that turnover are two new House Boating Caucus co-chairs, Rep. Lois Frankel, D-Fla., and Rep. Tom MacArthur, R-N.J. They replace Rep. Candice Miller, R-Mich., who did not seek re-election, and Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Fla., who lost his race for the U.S. Senate last fall.

“Both have already been proven champions for our industry, so it’s really exciting to have them come as co-chairs on the House side,” Vasilaros said. “They’ll be a great duo and will give us great leadership for the coming years.”

Jake Tapper, Hill visits and more

This year’s ABC will have a similar schedule to past events, with some new features (see tentative schedule).

Award-winning CNN journalist Jake Tapper will deliver this year’s keynote address kicking off the general session on Wednesday. Other speakers will be announced closer to the event, but will include elected representatives and administration officials. Frankel and MacArthur are likely to be among the speakers.

Another addition to the schedule this year is “Inside the Beltway – Republican and Democratic Insights,” which starts the Tuesday schedule. Attendees will be able to hear from Republican and Democratic D.C. operatives about the inner workings of both Congress and the administration in preparation for Hill visits and other meetings.

ABC has also released its schedule for the concurrent workshops on the morning of Tuesday, May 16.

There are nine Issue Workshops on the agenda for ABC 2017, divided into three subject tracks:

Business Track
9:30 am – Tax Policy: the impact of tax reform on your business and customers
10:10 am – Infrastructure: improving access across the nation’s lands and waterways with a 21st century infrastructure system
10:50 am – Trade: the future of U.S. trade agreements, the EU and North American Free Trade Agreement

Environment and Access Track
9:30 am – Access and Conservation: a case study for Everglades’ restoration
10:10 am – Boating Safety: keeping our boaters and waterways safe – 2017 boating safety priorities
10:50 am – Recreational Fishing: modernizing recreational fishing saltwater policy and recruiting the next generation of anglers

Workforce and Compliance Track
9:30 am – Workforce Development: attracting and retaining talent and the role of government in supporting company growth
10:10 am – Fuel Policy: the future of ethanol and reforming the Renewable Fuel Standard
10:50 am – Environment, Health and Safety Compliance: navigating the latest national and international marine manufacturing regulations

One of the most important facets of ABC is the opportunity to schedule visits to Capitol Hill to meet with senators and representatives. Hill visits are organized by state delegation so attendees can show the importance of boating to lawmakers.

“Having constituents come to town and say not only are they voters in the district but they are employers … that tells a story that is really impactful,” Vasilaros said. “I can’t underscore that enough. Having a boat brand or an engine company or a marina talk about troubles they’re facing, the opportunities they’re seeing for growth, really makes an impact on the staff and members.”

Key issues for 2017

At ABC and beyond, NMMA and other industry advocates will be focusing on multiple issues that matter to the boating industry.

“We’ve tried to align our priorities with what Congress is thinking, their top priorities as well as the administration,” Vasilaros said. “Issues like transportation, tax reform, are really hot button issues on Capitol Hill right now. We wanted to make sure the boating industry was engaged in those discussions. We’ve already started having meetings and laying out our positions on those key issues.”

Other issues the industry has worked on for years – such as ethanol, Magnuson-Stevens reform and trade – will also continue to be a priority. As a tool to help industry advocates educate officials, NMMA has produced a policy agenda for 2017.

On ethanol, there have been “mixed messages” from the administration, with a commitment to keep the Renewable Fuel Standard, but also perhaps some opportunity for reform, as the new head of the EPA, Scott Pruitt, has been open to reforms in the past.

“We’re really making sure we address consumer education,” Vasilaros said. “The truth is more ethanol is coming out in our fuel supply and will be more readily available. Consumers need to know what the difference is.”

On trade, NMMA has generally been in favor of more open trade, and supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership last year.

“NMMA has set forth some basic principles of what we’d like to see to help the boating industry: lower tariffs, harmonization of boat construction standards, reduction in technical barriers to trade, an establishment of some sort of regulatory coherence mechanism that increases transparency,” Vasilaros said. “Those are really the key principles that would benefit the boating industry, so whatever the agreement that’s something we are going to be putting forward.”

NMMA is also focused on any “NAFTA 2.0” agreement that may emerge.

“For marine businesses in the U.S., Canada and Mexico are extremely important markets,” she said. “We’re going to be paying really close attention to see if that 2.0 comes to fruition and how it will look.”

With a Republican administration and Congress, there is a renewed opportunity for action.

“When one party is in control of both the legislature and the executive branch, there is an opportunity for sweeping reform,” Vasilaros said. “There is some excitement that things can get past the gridlock … and we can actually see legislation start rolling.”

Jeff Angers, president of the Center for Sportfishing Policy, said he hopes that can mean progress on tweaking the Magnuson-Stevens Act to better manage recreational fishing in U.S. saltwater fisheries.

“We have the opportunity to take a clear message and to share it and to get it across the goal line,” he said. “Having sportsman-friendly leaders in all the branches of government puts us in a much better position to ensure that outdoor recreation is going to be recognized as an important activity.”

Angers said he believes those in the Trump administration, especially the new commerce secretary, realize the importance of the jobs created by recreational fishing.

“The Trump administration, I think, is going to be very focused on the types of jobs we see as a result of the growing recreational fishing business,” he said. “Secretary Wilbur Ross, from Florida, is keenly aware of the economic impact that small and large coastal communities enjoy because of a robust, properly managed recreational fishery. I think that’s going to trickle down to NOAA and the National Marine Fisheries Service because it all starts at the top.”

Angers reiterated that it is important for those in the boating and fishing communities to make sure their voices are heard by lawmakers and regulatory officials.

“There are going to be a lot of forces that don’t want to see change, that like the way things are managed now, that are not really concerned about the economic impact of recreational fishing,” he said. “We’ve just got to have a lot of voices in order for us to be able to pass this kind of legislation.”

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