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WASHINGTON, D.C. -- CSNews Online got a behind-the-scenes look at how lobbyists attempt to educate and influence the nation's lawmakers.
Yesterday, more than 100 NACS members visited Capitol Hill to visit with Senators and Congressmen to discuss a range of key issues facing the convenience and petroleum industry.
Foremost among their concerns was preserving the swipe fee reform enacted by the so-called Durbin Amendment to last year's financial reform bill. In more than 185 meetings in both the House and Senate, retailers asked their representatives to oppose any new bill to delay, amend or repeal the Durbin Amendment.
CSNews Online was invited to tag along as a guest on several meetings to get a firsthand look at how retailers can effectively sway lawmakers by speaking from the heart and relating real-life examples about the negative effect of unjust and skyrocketing debit and credit transaction fees on their businesses. Shadowing one of NACS's most experienced retailer government relations experts, Bill Douglass of Douglass Distributing Co. in Sherman, Texas, we visited with several members from Douglass' home state of Texas, including Ralph Hall, the senior member of the House who represents Texas' Fourth District.
Like many other NACS members, we encountered a wide range of reactions, from blank expressions (mostly from junior Congressional aides) to noncommittal head nods, to pointed questions from some lawmakers and aides who had recently received an earful from lobbyists for the big banking industry, which is desperately trying to prevent enactment of the Durbin Amendment.
In fact, in several meetings, members of Congress acknowledged they have been hit with a deluge of lobbyists from community banks and credit unions asking them to repeal or delay swipe fee reform, which is due to go into effect in July.
NACS members, and its lobbying staff, were quick to point out, however, that 99 percent of these banks and credit unions are exempt from the limits on debit card transaction fees proposed by the Federal Reserve as part of its mandate under Durbin.
This year's NACS Day on the Hill included in-depth issue briefings for members and a workshop on how to lobby Congress. Afterward, members of Congress escorted NACS members on a nighttime tour of the U.S. Capitol. (I was thrilled to meet freshman U.S. Congressman John Runyan of New Jersey. The 6-foot, 7-inch tall former Philadelphia Eagles offensive lineman was as excited as any NACS member about taking the tour.)
Runyan is one of 96 freshmen representatives -- 87 of them Republicans who were elected in the November GOP tidal wave. Over 40 of them have never held public office before, according to Congresswoman Kristi Noem of South Dakota, who briefly addressed the NACS crowd during a breakfast meeting on Thursday.
The large number of new lawmakers emphasized the importance of NACS' activities to educate and inform the newcomers about the key reasons why retailers need swipe fee relief to go forward. Members were briefed on such talking points as:
• The current debit card fee situation is unfair and amounts to price-fixing by the big banks.
• Main Street businesses need relief. Transaction fees are currently the second-largest expense, after labor, for convenience store retailers.
• Consumers will benefit. The retail industry's low margins and competitive nature practically guarantee that savings will be passed on to the consumer. Delay costs American consumers $1 billion per month and would kill 95,000 jobs per year.
Also heartening was the number of single-store owners who attended the Congressional meetings. They may not be hit with the largest transaction fees in raw numbers, but they may be at even great peril in terms of percentage of their total business and their ability to continue operations.
Overall, most of the retailers I spoke with felt they achieved their goal of updating lawmakers with the latest information on debit card reform and educating new members about the issue. NACS has set up an online form at www.nacsonline/grassroots for retailers to send letters directly to their own members of Congress.