WASHINGTON: Auto-parts manufacturers say their ongoing fight to recall a new tariff on foreign steel is teaching them a valuable lesson about Washington, DC policymaking: An industry's influence is directly related to its PR presence.
The Bush administration imposed tariffs of up to 30% on imported steel last year in an effort to help domestic steel producers remain competitive at home. Those industries that consume steel, such as auto-parts manufacturers, vociferously oppose the tariff. They argue that the levy is making raw material costs prohibitively expensive, and forcing plant closings.
A coalition of steel consumers descended on Washington last week to continue their fight to pressure Bush into reducing or eliminating the tariffs. But those involved from the beginning are saying the fight could have been avoided altogether if auto-parts makers had maintained a higher profile in Washington all along.
"Basically, these tariffs caught us off guard, and we've learned from that," said Neal Zipser, director of communications from the Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association (MEMA), which has about five operatives in Washington dedicated to a vast array of industry issues. "Parts manufacturers can no longer afford to be in the shadow of the automakers. We need to have our own presence here. If we had had that last year, we might have been a little better briefed on these tariffs before they went into effect."
The MEMA and its cohorts are making up for lost time now, doing almost weekly "fly-ins" to Washington, holding frequent briefings with editorial boards and members of Congress, and holding panel discussions throughout the city. But they have also begun the long-term work of raising their industry's profile with the political elite.
"We have developed an industry image kit that all of our lobbyists now take with them," said Zipser. "We are planning a number of high-profile events around town next year, and we've had a lot of luck using freelancers to keep in better touch with the media, too."
On the other side of the tariffs issue are steel producers and the influential United Steel Workers of America (USWA), who have formed Stand up for Steel to pressure Bush into maintaining the tax. They are using the Glover Park Group for help with strategy and media relations.
USWA spokesman Marco Trbovich took issue with the MEMA's characterization. "It strikes me as misguided as the rest of their campaign," he said, "especially when you consider that most of our PR activities don't even happen inside Washington, but inside steel-producing states. It just goes to show that they are as confused about our campaign as they are about the tariffs."