Two Rivals. Two Infrastructure Campaigns. Too Much.

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, September 4, 2007

The collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis last month will probably ignite a frenzy of legislating as Congress returns from vacation this week. It will also open a new front in one of the great, perennial, inside-the-Beltway rivalries, between the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers.

The organizations, which represent broad swaths of American businesses, have started campaigns to persuade the federal government to do what it's likely to do anyway: spend more on the transportation infrastructure. The Chamber's effort is called Let's Rebuild America. NAM's is the Alliance for Improving America's Infrastructure.

The presence of that much firepower is sure to inspire at least some additional federal spending. But it probably points up something even more telling -- that K Street can sometimes be very wasteful.

Veteran observers were not surprised to see the frequently feuding associations step on each other's toes again. They have competed for years to be the top dog on issues of importance to the nation's corporations.

But a few association executives said last week that they thought this time the competition had gone too far. Why would NAM start its own effort, they wondered, when the Chamber was already so active on the issue? After all, the Chamber's chief executive, Thomas J. Donohue, is a former president of the American Trucking Associations and has always paid special attention to highways.

The Chamber, in fact, had been promoting its new multimillion-dollar coalition since January. And, since 1998, it has housed a separate multi-sector coalition, Americans for Transportation Mobility, that includes labor unions.

So why might NAM form its own group?

One reason is obvious: The tragedy in Minneapolis will probably prompt multibillion-dollar legislation of the kind that lobby groups make their livings trying to shape. James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has proposed a nickel-a-gallon gasoline tax increase to finance bridge reconstruction. Other proposals are sure to follow.

Another reason involves the peculiar way that lobby groups work. Highway repair would help a lot of commercial interests -- from road builders to road users -- and those are precisely the kinds of companies that big trade groups are eager to please and -- here's the key -- collect dues from. Lots of dues.

So no one was shocked that Donohue gave a speech the week after the Minneapolis incident in which he reminded his audience that the Chamber has made highway refurbishment a priority.

"If we really want to move this country off the dime and build a modern and safe infrastructure, then the business community must step up to the plate and lead," he said on Aug. 10 in Irving, Tex. "I'm here to tell you that the Chamber of Commerce of the United States will organize, fund and lead this critical effort."

NAM's president apparently did not get the memo. Former Michigan governor John M. Engler, NAM's chief executive, rushed out his own plans for a transportation coalition soon after the accident on I-35. "It accelerated our process," NAM's vice president, Keith McCoy, said, though the association had been preparing its coalition for a while.

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