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Trade Associations as Washington, D.C., Lobbyists

Often companies join together and lobby in Washington, D.C., under the banner of a trade association. Individual companies pool their money and channel their activities through trade associations for various reasons.

Forming a trade association is a reliable way to have a louder voice in the debate and to ensure that small entities (for example, individual doctors) who could never fund their own powerful lobbying outfit may — when joined together with thousands or hundreds of thousands of others — wield some influence.

The largest and most powerful trade association is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Consistently the top spender on lobbying according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, the Chamber is the world’s largest business organization, representing the interests of more than 3 million businesses. Chamber members range from mom-and-pop shops and local chambers to leading industry associations and large corporations.

Located directly across from the White House, the Chamber goes either head to head or hand in hand with the White House on everything from tax policy to international trade to healthcare reform.

Trade associations may be organized by industry, such as the American Wind Energy Association, the Biotechnology Industry Association, and the National Beer Wholesalers Association, just to name a few. Members of Congress, congressional staff, regulators, and policymakers often consult experts in, or affiliated with, these associations as they deliberate on laws and regulations that would impact the industry in question.

Some critics consider such behavior confirmation of their cynical view of Washington; they see businesses supposedly writing the very same rulebook they are then obligated to follow.

But this dialogue is an unavoidable and vital part of the policymaking process. After all, who can expect every member of Congress to know the ins and outs of alternative fuel subsidies, the approval process for biotech drugs, or the arcane set of patchwork laws regulating alcohol in this country? Good trade associations know their industries and the issues they face better than anyone else in Washington.

Trade associations may also be organized by issues. For instance, the International Intellectual Property Alliance (IIPA) is a cross-sector/private sector coalition that strives to improve protection and enforcement of copyrights. IIPA is also representative of another variation of trade associations: an association of associations. In the case of IIPA, it includes seven separate associations representing the publishing, software, film, music, and recording industries.

Here are the top trade associations by expenditures on lobbying activities from 1998 to 2012, according to the website Open Secrets (www.opensecrets.org):

  • U.S. Chamber of Commerce

  • American Medical Association

  • Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America

  • American Hospital Association

  • National Association of Realtors

  • Business Roundtable

  • National Cable and Telecommunications Association

Not surprisingly, this list affirms that the health industry is among the largest spenders on lobbying activities.

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