A few years ago, the Composites Fabricators Association felt it did not need a political action committee.
But after watching sympathetic members of Congress weigh in with the Environmental Protection Agency on proposed clean-air rules for the composites industry, and then seeing EPA adopt a more industry-friendly position, the association now is convinced it needs to be part of Washington's political money chase.
CFA, which changed its name Oct. 1 to the American Composite Manufacturers Association, launched its first PAC at its annual trade show, Composites 2003, held Oct. 1-3 in Anaheim, Calif. CFA hopes to raise $15,000-$20,000 in the first year, which is small by the standards of Washington PACs.
``I think during the [EPA] process, [CFA] members really witnessed how vitally important it is to have congressional involvement,'' said Ken Odette, associate director of government affairs with Arlington, Va.-based CFA.
CFA joins several other industry trade groups in having PACs, at both the state and federal level.
The National Tooling & Machining Association has had a PAC for about 25 years, and recently has stepped up fund raising, giving out $41,000 in 2002.
``If it's a business trade association, it's got to have a PAC if it's going to be serious about having some legislative impact,'' said NTMA President Matt Coffey. ``I get personal calls from members of Congress ... to ask my opinion on something because they know we have a political action committee that has been dependable over the years.''
Every trade association official interviewed said that political donations do not automatically translate into legislative success, and they said they do not tie donations to specific legislation. But Coffey said having a PAC makes it easier to get access to members of Congress.
NTMA's PAC gave most of the money it raised last year, and anticipates raising another $40,000-$50,000 this year, because there are many manufacturing issues heating up in Congress, he said.
The PAC for the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. has been essentially dormant for the past two years, and finished June 30 with only $340 in the bank and no new funds coming in.
SPI officials said the tight economy made it extremely tough to raise money.
``I think over the last 24-30 months, probably the biggest reason the PAC has not been active is the economic times this industry has gone through,'' said Maureen Healey, vice president of government affairs for Washington-based SPI.
But the increased interest in Washington and in getting some government help with the industry's economic troubles is prompting SPI to take another look, Healey said.
SPI's PlasticsPAC spent only $1,000 in the 2002 elections.
Healey agreed it is easier to get access to Congress with a PAC, but she also said SPI is able to get congressional attention when it points out that plastics is the fourth-largest manufacturing industry in the United States.
For the composites group, a PAC is seen as enhancing its relationships with members of Congress, including those who weighed in with EPA when it was drafting the new air-quality rules.
``We honored four legislators of the year last year,'' said Missy Henriksen, CFA executive director. ``I think that's nice and that's an honor for them, but ... maybe there's a more meaningful or substantive way to be able to show appreciation for the assistance we've been provided.''
EPA initially proposed requiring all large plants to capture 95 percent of their styrene emissions, but dropped that in its final rule, which came out in April.
As CFA has grown and merged with several smaller composites trade groups, its government affairs operations have had to become more sophisticated, Henriksen said. The EPA activity also caught the attention of some politicians, CFA said.
``There was no expectation that we would make a contribution to somebody who helped us out, but I did receive a couple of phone calls, as did our legislative council, from members of Congress and fund-raisers who were aware of us going to certain legislators asking for help contacting EPA,'' Odette said. ``As the old saying goes, money is the mother's milk of politics.''
While the EPA work served as a catalyst for developing the PAC, CFA will not be seeking to overturn the new EPA rule, which it considers ``very workable and very achievable,'' Odette said.
He said the PAC will solicit contributions from executives, particularly those involved with the trade association. Henriksen said it probably will focus its donations on composites-related issues, rather than broader manufacturing issues.
An industry PAC in California affiliated with the American Plastics Council raised and spent about $40,000 on races in the state last year, divvying out money both for plastics-specific issues and for larger manufacturing issues like energy and worker training.
The PAC, Plastics California, has helped to raise the visibility of the industry and improve its image with legislators, said Tim Shestek, director of state and local affairs with the American Chemistry Council's office in Sacramento. APC is part of ACC; both are in Arlington.
Besides wielding a financial carrot, the PAC also is focused on having state legislators meet plastics firms in their districts, he said.
While the PAC is not getting involved in the state's topsy-turvy gubernatorial recall election, it probably will start making more donations during primary races for state legislative seats because new district boundaries have reduced the number of truly competitive districts, Shestek said.