With midterms looming, 'August is the new September' back home

As lawmakers return to their districts for the August recess, some of the issues they struggle with here are likely to follow them there.

As lawmakers return to their districts for the August recess, some of the issues they struggle with here are likely to follow them there.

Business and other interest groups are preparing to take advantage of the next five weeks to build grassroots support for favored bills as lawmakers reconnect with voters.

With the midterm elections closing in, several lobbyists and political activists predict an increase in local political activity this month.

“We say August is the new September,” said Bernadette Budde, senior vice president at the Business Industry Political Action Committee (BIPAC), which coordinates campaign activities for business groups.

BIPAC is encouraging its members to use the month to get candidates and incumbents on record in “issue statements” about their thoughts on areas of interest such as energy or tax policy. It is also pushing its members to release voter scorecards.

The idea is to take advantage of the fairs, picnics and other outdoor events people attend in August to maximize voter outreach efforts, Budde said.

Several legislative issues are likely to prompt activity in specific districts, such as the effort to raise the minimum wage. Expanding drilling along the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS), where it is now largely banned, is prompting particular attention.

The House has passed a bill giving states the authority to allow drilling and to share in royalties. The Senate was expected to pass a much narrower measure last night, with the stipulation that it wouldn’t be altered in a conference committee.

Whatever happens, the issue will face lawmakers upon their return, and groups on both sides plan district events to try to capture grassroots momentum. 

The Sierra Club is kicking off its electoral program this month, said spokesman David Willett. The group plans to go door to door and run phone banks in eight states: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, Washington, Colorado, Arkansas and California.

The group also plans to try to foment opposition in coastal states to drilling in the OCS by doing press conferences and other things to publicize what it says could be the consequence.

“If you are in an election year, this is a good time to start … because there isn’t a whole lot else going on,” Willett said.

Jack Gerard, the president and CEO of the American Chemistry Council (ACC), meanwhile, said his group and a broader coalition of like-minded members plans to keep the pressure on lawmakers to expand drilling.

The companies say expanding offshore drilling will reduce natural-gas prices. Chemical companies rely on natural gas as a feedstock for their products, and they say high prices have led to thousands of layoffs in their industry. Other manufacturers and farm groups, which use natural-gas-based fertilizers, have also been active in lobbying for expanded drilling.

“We’re not taking a recess in August,” Gerard said. “We are going to stay at it.”

The group has sought to increase its communications with its member companies. Before the House vote, Gerard said, chemical-company employees sent 48,000 “communications” to Hill offices. An additional 18,000 have been sent to the Senate.

Coalition members planned to meet today to chart strategy for the month, but Gerard said efforts would likely concentrate in the Midwest with farming communities stung by high gas costs.

The group has scheduled nine tours of local chemical plants for members. The ACC is also trying to build momentum for chemical-plant security legislation, long stalled on Capitol Hill.

The talking points that groups are carrying with them to the far reaches of the country aren’t limited to the issues of the day.

Preparing for a major debate on the farm bill next year, the National Farmers Union (NFU), for example, plans to hold 12 “listening sessions” in nine states to gauge what people in the agricultural community like and don’t like about farm policy.

“We’ve got a lot going on,” said NFU spokeswoman Emily Eisenberg.

Lawmakers are expected to be at several of the events. Sens. Russ Feingold and Herb Kohl, both Wisconsin Democrats, are scheduled to attend the Aug. 19 meeting in Chippewa Falls.

“Part of the reason we are doing these in August is to get people back in their districts,” she said.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, is running ads supporting candidates in several districts this month. In addition, it launched a 12-state bus tour yesterday to boost voter-registration totals and provide its business-friendly endorsement to candidates, mostly Republicans.

The idea, said Chamber Political Director Bill Miller, is to “generate a high degree of awareness about the issues that the business community cares about.”