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Washington Bicycling Hub - Spring '04
Where Are the Bicycling PACs?
By Charles Pekow
Mr. Pekow, a seasoned Washington journalist, provides Bikexchange.com with continuing coverage of national legislative news on bicycling issues.
Fighting directly for bicycle-friendly government policies and money is a task the nation’s bicycle community has learned to perform. But it’s only half the battle to creating government policies more hospitable to human pedal power. And the cycling community and even the bicycle business haven’t learned to play the other necessary half of the political game: organized efforts to fund the campaigns of bicycle-friendly candidates.
Most industries and countless interest groups have created political action committees (PACs) to collect funds from individuals (donations from companies are illegal) and give millions of dollars to candidates for federal office. PACs represent every interest from the health care industry to pro- and anti-abortion groups with stakes in legislation.
“I think I can say, and say with pride, that we have some legislatures that bring higher prices than any in the world,” Mark Twain observed in 1875. Almost 130 years later, the bicycle community is paying the price of inadequate bicycle facilities for not paying the price of electing sympathetic representatives.
Sure, we’ve got everything from America Bikes to The National Center for Bicycling & Walking to the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals to the League of American Bicyclists (LAB) to the International Mountain Bicycling Association and other groups fighting in many ways for a more hospitable country for bicycling.
But when it comes to getting the right legislators to support the cause, the field is, well, going at the speed of a bicycle trying to race with a locomotive. Look at the coming elections. As of early March, PACs representing the transportation industry had already donated $7,542,200 to federal candidates, according to figures compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics based on data submitted to the Federal Elections Commission (FEC). The air transport industry airdropped the most: $3,200,944. The automotive industry motored over $2,023,385. PACs affiliated with trucking, railroad and boat industries also transported hundreds of thousands of dollars.
You can bet they didn’t do it because they wanted more bicycle education funding. Notice how the airlines got billions of dollars from Congress to cover their losses? And thus far, energy & natural resource business-related PACs have donated almost $8 million to congressional candidates while Congress is considering a major energy bill that will give between $14 billion and $24 billion in tax breaks and subsidies for the energy business. The $8 million may bring a pretty good return on investment. (By contrast, the multi-billion Energy Policy Act would authorize $5 million to promote bicycling to save energy.)
And bicycles? The Bikes Belong Coalition Ltd. Political Action Committee managed to make one $500 campaign contribution. It went to Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN), ranking minority member of the House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure, who has long used his post to push for provisions for bicycling. Minnesota Public Radio stated that Oberstar “helped Congress quadruple spending on bike projects in the last decade.” Though he’s a great friend of bicycling, he might have needed the contribution to buy another good bicycle rather than get him reelected. He has served longer than any representative in Minnesota history, having won election every two years since 1974. He usually gets about two-thirds of the vote.
Bikes Belong founded its PAC in 2002 and has raised a measly $2,365. Trek Bicycle Company Manager John Burke of Madison, WI, donated most of the total, $2,000.
“We solicited our members and response was limited,” acknowledges Rich Olken, Bikes Belong Coalition executive director and PAC treasurer. “Mostly we got $25-$35 contributions and it takes an awful lot of them to add up to big money. Soliciting to our member companies is very complicated and legally restricted. We can only solicit to home addresses and we need permission from companies to solicit employees and you can only solicit management, not hourly employees. That’s a lot of steps for a $25 contribution.”
So how can the bicycling community better participate in the campaign funding game? “A PAC does not have to be a huge PAC to be effective,” said Earl Jones, president of the Louisville (KY) Bicycle Club, speaking at the recent National Bike Summit in Washington, DC sponsored by LAB. “I know political contributions have a bad reputation these days,” Jones acknowledges.
Oberstar himself addressed the summit, saying transportation-related PACs representing “everything from aviation to taxicabs” donate to campaigns of his House colleagues. (Just last year, a non-election year, Oberstar received $82,750 from transportation unions, $33,500 from air transporters and $16,839 from maritime transporters, so it’s a good thing he likes to bike.)
“You need to have a voice at the table of transportation. Political contributions are a way of doing it. It gets people’s attention,” Oberstar told the bicycling advocates. He warned “contributions should be bipartisan. They don’t have to be big contributions….They just have to be there and the fact is they are not there now” – not from bicycle manufacturers, retailers or riders. “I had a meeting in my office (with bicycle reps) and asked how many of them contributed to a political campaign. Not a hand went up. It never occurred to them.”
Ready to get started? Laws are complicated and require regular filing of all contributions above $200 to PACs and all donations to candidates. For a guide, see the FEC website and particularly its Campaign Guide for Corporations & Labor Organizations at and Campaign Guide for Nonconnected Committees.
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