More than 125 members of the Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors - National Association were lobbyists for the day, April 14, in Washington, D.C.

This marked the ninth year members have headed to the capital for PHCC's Legislative Day, an annual event that allows members to, among other things, have the chance to talk in person with their representatives and senators about issues of importance to plumbing and heating contractors.

“Our members tell us that legislative activities are one of the most important reasons they have for belonging to the PHCC,” PHCC-NA Executive Vice President D.L. “Ike” Casey told us the afternoon before Legislative Day as members wrapped up an orientation session designed to help better understand and debate legislative issues.

He's not kidding. Casey added that the results of a member survey were so recent that only the group's board of directors had heard the results that day.

Survey participants were asked how important it was for PHCC to play a number of different roles in the industry. Combining the “very important” and “important” ratings, the first and second roles were:

  • Represent and promote the industry (96.2 percent).

  • Represent the industry at the federal level (89.5 percent).
When it comes to legislative affairs, it's safe to say that those two roles become one and the same.

“The PHCC's main legislative issues are small-business issues selected directly by our contractor members,” says Lake Coulson, PHCC's vice president, government relations. “They see these as the areas that are most directly affecting their bottom line and the way they conduct business.”

Those main legislative issues for this year are the following:

  • Association Health Plans that can give small businesses the opportunity to pool together to find less-expensive healthcare through trade associations. The PHCC, for example, would be able to offer healthcare coverage not only for its members, but its members' employees.

  • Permanent reduction of estate taxes to ensure that future generations of small businesses will not have to pay estate taxes at the higher rate that is scheduled to go back into effect in 2011.

  • Tort reform in the construction industry to help protect plumbing and heating contractors from unnecessary and costly litigation initiated by trail lawyers that ultimately helps increase contractors' insurance rates. What's more, especially in the construction industry, the threat of litigation has driven some insurance companies from providing coverage.

  • Fighting unfair competition to protect heating contractors from utility company competitors that offer HVAC services at a reduced rate made possible through financial support from utility bills paid by customers.

    A breakfast meeting began the Legislative Day with speeches by two senators and a representative. Sen. John Kyl (R-Ariz.) discussed his thoughts on the prospects of passing an estate tax bill this session. Just the day before Kyl made his comments, 43 House Democrats joined 230 Republicans to permanently repeal the estate tax, which most supporters of repeal deride as a “death tax.”

    Kyl said there is momentum to get the bill passed this year, and predicted the Senate will consider the legislation after the Congressional recess in May.

    Afterward, Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Texas) talked about some construction industry issues related to taxes, the regulatory arena and the lawsuit environment.

    Finally, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) discussed the status of legislation that would protect contractors from unfair competition from utilities. PHCC supports Feingold's efforts to include an amendment to the energy bill that would create a level of separation between a utility and its unregulated affiliate. Feingold said the House is expected to consider the energy bill soon.

    Scoring two senators and a representative to speak is no small feat.

    “When Legislative Day started we would be lucky to have one representative - and that's only because one of the members knew the rep personally,” Casey says. “The attendance and caliber of speakers at Legislative Day has improved every year.”

    Casey attributes this upturn to Coulson's increased efforts at governmental affairs, as well as the increased clout of PHCC's political action committee.

    “The reason people give money is because they trust the person in charge of the lobbying,” Casey says. “Lake has won a lot of trust from the members.”

    When Coulson started at PHCC in 2000, the PAC had $10,000.

    “Now we have $150,000,” Casey adds. “For a specialty trade group in construction, that amount makes us a player. Back when we had only $10,000, it was gee, thanks for stopping by. Now, you get put on a different list.”

    PHCC has a “principled” PAC, says Coulson, meaning it contributes only to those legislators who vote in favor of PHCC positions 70 percent of the time.

    “We want to align ourselves with legislators and elected officials who are sensitive to the issues affecting our contractors,” Coulson adds.

    Coulson is also active in local politics, too. For example, last year he traveled to South Dakota to help the campaign of John Thune, who successfully won a senate seat from Democratic stalwart Tom Daschle.

    “The PAC opens doors,” Casey says, “but the state PHCCs and contractor-members do a lot every day. Contractors are in contact with a lot of other people in the course of running their business, so even if politicians have only 50 contractors in their districts, they still see our constituency as an important part of their future.”

    Long Tradition

    The 125 members who took part in Legislative Day last April are in good company.

    “The PHCC has always played an important position in establishing the laws we live by as well as the laws that affect our businesses,” says PHCC-NA Executive Vice President D.L. “Ike” Casey.

    Casey told us that when the PHCC was started in 1883, the members knew they needed to do something regarding water and sanitation laws across the country. Eventually, the members went to the states and got plumbing and licensing laws and building codes established.

    “That was before the PHCC had professional staff,” Casey adds, “so it was the members, the contractors, that did this work.”

    The following is taken from “A Heritage Unique,” a 164-page book that tells the history of the national trade association and, in this excerpt, the success of the group's initial political efforts:

    “Nowhere were the benefits of forming a national association more dramatic than in the area of plumbing legislation. During the 1890s and the first decade of the 20th century, the association spearheaded the enactment of the plumbing ordinances, laws for registration and examination of plumbers and inspection laws.

    “It represented a complete reversal. Only a few years earlier, health boards, set up to regulate plumbing installations, had ignored the experience of plumbing contractors. Contractors had charged that they were guided by 'newspaper scientists' and 'raw medical school graduates.' Now the national association gave master plumbers the stature and organizational strength to demand a voice under the guidance of the Sanitary and Legislative Committees. Sanitary laws had been limited to a few large cities until the association fostered their passage in hundreds of smaller communities and at the state level. It was the national association that stimulated the formation of local associations, which applied the pressure. In turn, having a national organization gave local contractors the status and the influence they had lacked when acting on their own.”