NSSGA leaders provide glimpse of road ahead in Washington

By |  December 8, 2020

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In Part 1 of a two-part interview, Michael Johnson and Michele Stanley of the National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association (NSSGA) dissect the presidential election, the outcome’s impact on the aggregate industry, and what sort of governing to expect from the Biden administration come 2021. Johnson, president and CEO of NSSGA, and Stanley, vice president of government and regulatory affairs at the association who was just named a top 2020 lobbyist by The Hill, discuss the prospects of a highway bill in Part 2 of the P&Q interview here.

As staff leaders at NSSGA, what is your reaction to Joe Biden becoming the next president of the United States? What impact do you expect the Biden administration to have on the aggregate industry?

NSSGA’s Mike Johnson is looking for cooperation from the Department of the Interior, lobbying for an interior secretary who’s willing to work with aggregate producers. Photo: NSSGA

Says NSSGA’s Michael Johnson: “I’m confident the industry is in a good place. While elections matter, part of our job at NSSGA is to make sure they don’t matter all that much.” Photo: NSSGA

Johnson: Well, first, you had a record number of people vote in this election – and a record number that voted for the guy who came in second. What I’m proud of is that our industry participated in numbers like they hadn’t before. NSSGA worked really hard to make sure we registered our industry, educated our folks and got out the vote. Michele’s team did a great job with that.

I think it’s incredibly exciting anytime you have a new administration in Washington. It creates opportunities to change the dynamic. In the last four years, President Trump was clearly able to do some things. He couldn’t do everything he wanted to do, though, and Congress ended the year deadlocked.

When you have an election like this that’s so popular in terms of people turning out and one that’s so deeply divided, it’s an indication that the extremes on either side didn’t prevail and that they didn’t do very well.

Look at the results: To have Joe Biden come out of the primaries wasn’t really a move toward an ultra-liberal agenda; it was a move toward the moderate wing of the Democratic party. At the same time, Republicans gained [House] seats in a year in which they expected to lose some because they ran against an extremist message like ‘defund the police’ and ‘socialism.’

To me, all of this means the opportunity to get something done has never been greater. This is an exciting time.

Even though the administration is changing, the association has positioned itself with champions in that moderate caucus. Photo: NSSGA

Says NSSGA’s Michele Stanley: “Even though the administration is changing, the association has positioned itself with champions in that moderate caucus.” Photo: NSSGA

Stanley: Changes always bring new opportunities. We are positioning ourselves – not only the association, but the industry – for success in this new administration.

Our team continues to meet with incoming lawmakers and to meet with the transition team to ensure infrastructure investment is at the top of the list in the first-100 days agenda as they move forward.

The moderates are really going to be where things get done. Even though the administration is changing, the association has positioned itself with champions in that moderate caucus.

We’re really encouraged by President-elect Biden talking about infrastructure so much. Some of the folks in his proposed Cabinet are talking about infrastructure. They are really hoping in the early days of this administration to bring in stakeholders, and finally get everybody on the same page – whether it’s stimulus or simply the reauthorization of the highway bill.

From Democrats, we heard a lot of progressive campaign rhetoric this year that may have instilled fear in some voters – including, possibly, some within the aggregate industry. So with the outcomes had on Election Day, you do anticipate the Biden administration to pursue less of a progressive agenda and one aligned more toward the center?

Johnson: I’m confident the industry is in a good place. While elections matter, part of our job at NSSGA is to make sure they don’t matter all that much. We strive to be positioned for whatever happens on Election Day, to make sure we’re ready to drive this industry and policy forward to produce aggregates safely and profitably.

I think it’s important to remember that election rhetoric is designed to motivate people to vote for or against somebody. You hear a lot about extremes in election season. But then you come back and you govern in the middle.

When you look at the margins in the House getting slimmer and the Democrats’ Green New Deal efforts, those just aren’t real as an avenue for them to pursue. On the flip side, the Republicans aren’t going to stop talking about ‘socialism’ because they want to motivate their base.

Will the regulatory environment present more challenges? Maybe. But I think President Biden realizes that if he manages to lose the House or have the Republicans either retake or expand a majority in the Senate in two years, then he’s essentially a ‘two-year’ president.

I think you’ll see the extremes on both sides be mitigated by the reality in Washington, which is very slim margins.

Stanley: Not only are the margins small in the House, but even if Democrats win the two seats in Georgia, there’s still not going to be a big margin in the Senate. To get super-progressive Green New Deal kinds of legislation through the Senate, you would have to not lose any Democrats. So trying to get something super progressive through both chambers is going to be very difficult.

On the administration front, the Biden administration is going to have to bring forward people who can be confirmed by the Senate. If you’ve seen some of the names being put forward, they are very moderate – including some people who have been confirmed before by the Senate.

How closely are you paying attention to the two Senate runoff elections in Georgia, as the potential outcomes there can still dictate different pathways forward for the U.S. and the aggregate industry? What is your expectation with those races, and is there an outcome that would best benefit the aggregate industry?  

Johnson: My general philosophy is that a divided government produces the best results. I think it is probably in the best interest of NSSGA and our policy agenda to see the Senate remain in Republican hands.

When a divided government is in place, it forces people to work together – they look to issues like infrastructure investment, which have traditionally been bipartisan.

We have supported both of the incumbent senators (Sen. David Perdue (R-Georgia) and Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Georgia)). ROCKPAC is an incumbent-focused political action committee. We support the folks who have a vote so they can advance our economy, advance our infrastructure investment and create jobs.

We’re not a change organization. We want to see our friends in Congress return. Senators Perdue and Loeffler qualify as friends that we want to see back. So we’ve supported both of them.

That said, if they don’t prevail we have to get ready to make new friends because we’re in the friend-making business. If there are new senators from Georgia, we have to be sure we can work with them.

If the Democrats sweep both of those runoffs, you’re looking at a 50-50 tie in the Senate. You can’t count on every Democrat to toe the line. They’re going to be looking for solutions that make sense for the states they represent. So while Georgia is important, it’s less important at NSSGA because we’ve prepared well and are ready to work with whatever balance of power we are dealt.

Stanley: No matter what happens, we’ll continue to push for infrastructure investment and passage of a multiyear highway bill. Whoever wins the Georgia races, those will still be our No. 1 issues.

Also, consider that a lot of the moderate or conservative Democrats are up for election in two years. That’s something else their leadership and the administration will be very conscious of. They’re working to put things on the Senate and House floor because they don’t want to lose any of those Democrat seats. 2022 is going to be a rough year for Democrats.

Johnson: The message all our members in Georgia need to hear is this: You’re tired of politics; this has been a long cycle, it’s been ugly, and you’re sick of seeing ads on TV. But whether you voted or not in November, if you care about the ability to impact the issues that matter, then make sure you don’t take this runoff lightly or take the election off. Show up and vote what’s best for our industry, your family and your country.

Featured images: NSSGA

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