To guide its lobbying in 2004, the plastics industry may want to borrow a line from President Clinton's 1992 campaign: ``It's the economy, stupid.''
Bread-and-butter issues will dominate the political plate this year, with industry lobbyists focused on China, health care, energy and reducing regulatory costs for businesses. The one exception is California, where the debate over recycling, solid waste and the environment is gathering force.
Maureen Healey, vice president of government affairs for the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc., said the 2004 elections will cast a long shadow over events, shortening the legislative calendar and dominating Washington. That means 2004 is likely to be a year only for ``must-do legislation,'' she said.
Healey said there's a scenario that would make legislation on natural gas one of those must-do bills. Since the mammoth rewrite of the energy bill has stalled in Congress, industry lobbyists are hoping to move separate legislation on natural gas.
Environmental groups and public concern in states like Florida have blocked attempts to make it easier to drill for natural gas, but Healey thinks a cold winter, coupled with natural gas prices that hit $7 per million Btu in mid-December, could sway opinion.
``If [natural] gas prices go up, there may be a cry for Congress to do something in January,'' Healey said.
Beyond energy, Washington-based SPI also will be pushing legislation on association health plans, which let trade groups set up nationwide health-care plans for their members. The theory is that such plans would lower costs by letting small companies band together for leverage. Healey said the industry continues to see double-digit increases in health-care costs.
``We want whatever is going to help reduce the continued inflation of health-care costs,'' Healey said. ``The best deal in town seems to be the association health plan.''
But she said it's not clear what prospects the legislation has, because health care is a contentious issue and association health plans are opposed by the insurance industry, state insurance regulators and some key members of Congress.
Trade-related issues also are likely to attract the attention of industry lobbyists.
Matt Coffey, president of the National Tooling & Machining Association in Fort Washington, Md., said Congress and the White House need to make sure trade policies benefit smaller, domestically oriented companies, not just multinationals. NTMA includes many small companies, including mold makers.
Specifics for Coffey include reshaping the foreign sales corporation tax, watching to see what emerges from the Bush administration's review of U.S. manufacturing policy, taking a go-slow approach on new trade agreements, pushing China on currency issues and fully funding programs like the Manufacturing Extension Partnership.
``What we need to see is a commitment to change in attitude both over at the White House and the Commerce Department,'' he said. ``The Commerce Department was not created to be a trade promotion authority for transnational companies.''
He said the Bush administration's review of manufacturing policy is taking longer than expected because of ``this incredibly difficult balancing act between the interests of trans- nationals and the interests of the supply chain.''
SPI's Healey said the United States needs to focus on what it can do to make itself more competitive, like reducing burdensome regulations and costs on businesses.
Government should continue to press China on trade issues, she said, but bigger steps - like legislation punishing China with tariffs if it won't float its currency - are not likely to go anywhere, she said.
``We can't go all out attacking China when we have a very vast area where we can do improvements,'' she said.
Outside of economic issues, industry lobbyists predict that California will continue to be a hotbed of environmental issues.
Tim Shestek, director of state and local affairs with the American Chemistry Council/American Plastics Council's office in Sacramento, said the state Legislature will debate a tax on disposable bags and cups, and the industry will work with state regulators and environmentalists on reducing pollution from resin pellets and plastic trash in waterways.
Meanwhile, the industry's political action committee in the state, Plastics California, is in the midst of a fund-raising blitz to step up its political influence, he said. The group wants to raise $40,000 to spend in competitive races in the state's legislative primaries this spring.
Shestek said the election of Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger boosts the industry's political chances, noting that Schwarzenegger recently sided with the plastic pipe industry in a long-running fight over whether plastic can be used in water pipes in new homes.