More cause than cash: The bike lobby comes of age

Posted by Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) on March 5th, 2013 at 10:28 pm

Source: BikePortland

Representative Tom Rice (R-South Carolina) addresses the crowd at the BikesPAC event. (Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)

Representative Tom Rice (R-South Carolina) addresses the crowd at the BikesPAC event.
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)

For the bicycling agenda to have any chance of competing on Capitol Hill, it will take cash donations to members of Congress and direct lobbying. That might be an inconvenient truth to idealistic advocates; but insiders say it’s simply how the game is played.

On Tuesday night, 10 members of Congress showed up to a wine bar just blocks from the Capitol Building where Bikes Belong hosted their annualBikesPAC fundraiser and lobbying shindig. The event was an opportunity to, “cultivate long-term relationships,” said Bikes Belong President and emcee for the night, Tim Blumenthal.

“Cycling was a punching bag a few years ago; it was a political freebie to beat up on cycling. Not any more. We’re coming of age.”
— Congressman Earl Blumenauer

Blumenthal said his group raised about $70,000 last year and he expects to bump that up to $90,000 this year. With that money, BikesPAC writes checks to the re-election campaigns of members of Congress who are supportive of bicycling. Finance rules limit such donations to $5,000 per candidate per election, so even though BikesPAC is tiny in financial terms, it gives them an opportunity to exert influence.

If the bike industry stepped up and got more involved and organized, BikesPAC could yield even greater influence. That’s a fact lamented by Blumenthal. “I think there’s a somewhat understandable hesitation on the part of bike industry leaders to make contributions to members of Congress; but what they need to know is it’s the only way we’ll get face-to-face audiences with the key members.” With limited financial reach, Blumenthal explained that “We are in no position to buy anybody’s vote.” Instead, these donations to carefully chosen Senators and House Representatives simply offer an opportunity to make the case for bicycling.

Blumenthal puts the power of BikesPAC in perspective by explaining that there are about 2,000 full-time transportation lobbyists that work every day on Capitol Hill. But the bike lobby, he said, “On a good day we’re four people.” Looked at another way, Blumenthal pointed out that the National Automobile Dealers Association raises $5 million dollars a year by getting every car dealer in the country to pony up. As a result, “They have a lot more power and they have a lot more influence.”

But don’t despair, we have a secret weapon: “What we have is a great cause and a great story,” said Blumenthal. “People come here because it’s non-controversial, positive thing. And they like it.”

As the night wore on, Blumenthal’s theory proved true. 10 members of Congress showed up: five Republicans and five Democrats. Just about every one of them shared a personal story about bicycling and they all thanked the assembled crowd of uber-advocates and bike industry luminaries (including SRAM co-founder Stan Day, Trek Bicycles President John Burke, and others) for their work in making America more bike-friendly.

Sen. Barrasso

Sen. Barrasso

Senator John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) said he and his staff “Want to be helpful” to bicycling, “Because we all know how important this is for our nation.” He spoke a lot about health (as did many others) and thanked the crowd for their, “work to get America moving.”

Rep. Rice and Tim Blumenthal (R).

Rep. Rice and Tim Blumenthal (R).

House Representative Tom Rice (R-South Carolina) shared a story about the terrible weekend congestion that plagues his hometown of Myrtle Beach and how some of it could be alleviated if more people were on bicycles. A self-described fiscally conservative tax lawyer by trade, Rep. Rice shared his perspective that funding bicycle projects makes fiscal sense: “There’s a difference between spending and investment… And we’re not going to have the same level of investment we’ve had in the past, so we have to choose how we spend it wisely. Bicycling is a great form of alternative transportation.”

Sen. Cardin

Sen. Cardin

Just before Senator Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) spoke, I overheard one bike advocate whisper, “This guy saved our ass.” He was referring the amendment Cardin successfully passed in the recent transportation bill (MAP-21) that put more federal transportation funds into the hands of local cities and counties — instead of letting the state DOTs hold the pursestrings.

“We were successful on MAP-21,” Cardin said, “Because of people in the room. There were powerful interests against what we were trying to do. They wanted no federal funds to go toward projects such as bike paths.” Now the big challenge, Cardin warned, is to make sure local governments, “Don’t succumb to the pressure of the road builders.”

Rep. DeFazio

Rep. DeFazio

Oregon’s House Rep. Peter DeFazio also swung by the event. He chatted up all the Oregon advocates in the room and gave his thanks for BikesPAC support.

Rep. Tom Petri (R).

Rep. Tom Petri (R).

As Chairman of the Subcommittee on Highways and Transportation in the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, Representative Tom Petri (R-Wisconsin) urged bike advocates to bring local success stories to their Congressional representatives. “This is really a grassroots effort; it’s not really a Washington effort. The only thing I can say is to think about how to connect what’s going on in the country and in people’s lives with what’s happening here.”

Sen. Carper

Sen. Carper

Senator Tom Carper (R-Delaware) shared that when he was a flight officer with the U.S. Navy he’d throw his Schwinn Varsity in the back of the plan so he could ride wherever they touched down. Carper also mentioned bicycling health benefits: “We need to exercise more and make it possible for people to have fun while they exercise.”

Rep. Swawell

Rep. Swawell

33-year old freshman Representative Eric Swawell (D-California) showed up unexpectedly to share his enthusiastic support of bicycling.

House Rep. Steny Hoyer

House Rep. Steny Hoyer

Venerable House Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland) said Congress is “being penny-wise and pound-foolish” when it comes to infrastructure spending. Hoyer’s personal bike story was that his father was born in cycle-friendly Denmark. “I’m Danish… Where they cycle because it’s good for their health and good for the health of their roads. I came from stock that thinks biking is a part of life. It’s just how they do things.”

Representative Jack Kingston

Representative Jack Kingston

Representative Jack Kingston (R-Georgia) is a self-described fiscally conservative Republican who commutes by bike.

Rep. Blumenauer

Rep. Blumenauer

The night wrapped up with the cycling’s Grand Man in Congress: Earl Blumenauer. He said BikesPAC is just as important as any other arm of the bike advocacy movement. “This is about supporting the people who support you,” he said. And it’s working. “Cycling was a punching bag a few years ago; it was a political freebie to beat up on cycling. Not any more. We’re coming of age.”

Blumenthal also said the lobbying has already borne fruit even against what seem like huge odds. “Even in a country of 313 million people,” he said, “where there are thousands of different causes and we have no money — we are able to connect and advance our cause. I mean, we’re not killing it; we’re not knocking it out of the park where every member of Congress says, ‘I fear the bike lobby.’ But we’re coming along. We’re on the right track.”

More coverage from the National Bike Summit here.