For retailers chief lobbyist, battles in Congress go on and on

As chief lobbyist for the National Retail Federation (NRF), David French finds himself amid a fluid host of issues like swipe fees, healthcare reform, online sales tax fairness and visa and trade policies, as well as corporate tax reform and, well, nearly everything else on the congressional agenda. 

“This is fun. I like policy, but I really like politics … moving people toward an outcome,” he said. 

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French isn’t talking about the partisan politics that are pervasive on Capitol Hill — the NRF’s phonebook-size issue guide draws support from both sides of the aisle. 

No, he likes the mechanics of counting votes and building coalitions. 

“What I find the most fun is representing retail,” he said. 

“We’ve got a good story to tell, we’re significant employers … it’s a good mission to have.”

The Pittsburgh native, who has been in Washington for more than two decades, has captured a few recent victories, including a big one over the fees banks charge for debit-card use. 

“We’re trying to protect our beachhead,” French said. 

 “There’s $14 billion at stake and the banks aren’t going to let us forget that. They want their money.”

French is protecting the turf of a large chunk of the U.S. workforce — 1 in 4 American workers, or 42 million people, are employed by the retail industry. 

He is determined to remain diligent by keeping lawmakers abreast of what the banks are up to, especially if they are concealing fees charged to consumers. 

“I’m not trying to boil the ocean with every bank fee out there, but we want an open and transparent market where retailers can select service based on how much it costs as opposed to being handed the bill and being told, ‘This is what you’re going to have to pay,’ ” he said. 

The measure to reduce swipe fees, pushed by Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, led to a reduction to 21 cents from an average of 44 cents for each transaction, higher than the 12-cent limit pushed by retailers. 

In response to the Federal Reserve’s decision, retailers filed a lawsuit, waging yet another fight. 

“We’re confident that ultimately a ruling will come down in our favor,” French said. 

But the lawsuit is only part of the battle.

“The other part is to make sure the banks can’t claw those gains back,” he said. 

French and the NRF are also closely watching the implementation of the healthcare law, which the Supreme Court recently upheld. 

From a retailer’s standpoint the “risks are very high,” but French said they are “willing to work with the government to try to get the right reforms.”

He is concerned that the law will drive up costs and that the new rules, on issues like the definition of a full-time employee, will make it difficult to adapt. 

“If the law doesn’t work for retailers, the law doesn’t work,” he said.

In recent weeks, French and the NRF have propelled the debate on legislation that would require states to collect sales tax from online retailers. 

The measure recently earned an endorsement from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who committed to a floor vote once the measure has enough support. 

Further support comes from Amazon. After years of opposing legislation, the online retailing giant is now backing a solution to the 1992 Supreme Court ruling that says retailers aren’t required to collect sales taxes from customers in states where they do not have a physical presence.

The NRF argues that the change will create thousands of jobs and would generate $23 billion nationwide in annual sales tax revenue, a much-needed boost for depleted state coffers.

Whether Congress can move the online sales tax bill in an election year remains to be seen, but, despite some lingering concerns from lawmakers, it has more momentum than ever before. 

French has also seen progress on his group’s effort to improve visa wait times in China and Brazil and other nations where demand to visit the United States is so great that there is a months-long backlog of applications. 

The goal, one also pushed by the Obama administration, is not only to increase tourism, which has sagged in recent years, but to ramp up consumer spending by attracting more visitors.

More tourists means more U.S.-based jobs and a boost to the economy. Retailers took a huge hit in 2008 and 2009 during the economic downturn but have fought back, with growth expected to continue this year. 

Corporate tax reform remains another signature issue because, French says, retailers pay upward of 34.5 percent. The corporate tax rate is 35 percent, and lawmakers and industry backers are trying to lower that as part of a tax-code overhaul next year. 

With many of the NRF’s issues emerging all at once, French, luckily, has honed his ability to juggle tasks during nearly 10 years on Capitol Hill. 

After graduating from Wesleyan University in 1989, he landed a job in the office of New Jersey Republican Matt Rinaldo answering phones and mail. 

That led him to his hometown congressman’s office in 1993 — former Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Rick Santorum. 

“My career probably wouldn’t have been where it is today if I hadn’t worked for Rick, because he was in the middle of almost everything going on in the 1990s,” French said. 

He learned plenty about the process of give-and-take in Congress, a practice he says has faded in recent years with growing partisanship and a detour from regular order, as decisions have become more and more mired in leadership offices.

Still, despite lessons learned working with lawmakers and lobbyists, he argues that coaching his kids’ baseball teams has provided some of the greatest insight. 

Leading a pack of young ballplayers has given him good training for being a manager, helped his communications skills and taught him how to break down issues into easily digestible bits, which he has found good for building consensus. 

“That taught me more than anything I’ve ever done in my life.”