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Justifying WGA’s Washington Office

Western Growers Association has announced that it will be opening a Washington, D.C.-based office for government relations — an event that could turn out to be deeply significant for the trade.

On the bright side, another hand on deck fighting for produce industry interests in D.C. could be helpful, and Matt McInerney, WGA Executive Vice President, who is temporarily heading the office while it staffs up, is universally liked and respected.

Regional association executives and volunteer leadership have always flown into Washington at crucial moments to help lobby for the passage of laws, to help shape regulations and to testify before Congress. They serve a vital role. A Senator from Texas will pay more attention to what John McClung, President of the Texas Produce Association, has to say than he will to what any national produce association executive has to say. Same goes for almost any state or regional association and its corresponding Representative or Senator. And many regional associations contract with lobbyists and law firms, etc.

Yet, the opening of the office is a difference in kind, not just in degree.

The problem is that opening an office is a large expense, and an association needs to justify this kind of expense to its board and membership. Putting another guy on the produce industry team seems an insufficient justification for such a large and continuing expense. Most boards would insist on hearing of key points of differentiation between what this office will do and what is already being done before approving it.

And the differentiation has to continue to provide a continuing justification for the expense. If the WGA Washington office simply agrees with everything that United does and helps United execute its government relations strategy, what kind of justification is that for a D.C. office, which will probably cost well in excess of ten million dollars over the next 20 years?

Unfortunately, the justification is likely to come about by finding a reason to disagree with United. The temptation will be to paint the picture that the WGA is the guardian of grower interests and that United, with its broader membership base, can’t be counted on to defend grower interests.

To provide a continuing justification for the expense of maintaining this office, the inclination will be to find points of differentiation between WGA and United, rather than points of unity.

This could lead to a more divided industry presence in Washington.

We all know that sometimes a state, regional or commodity-specific group may have interests that are not opposed by national groups but simply don’t reach a saliency that causes them to be focused on. But WGA, as the largest regional group, rarely has that problem and, in fact, its announcement of the new office explains its rationale without reference to any unique interests of western growers:

“Western Growers believes that it can best serve its members by having a full time Washington, D.C. presence to lobby on federal issues like the 2007 Farm Bill, immigration reform, specialty crop competitiveness and food safety.”

The Farm Bill, Immigration Reform, Specialty Crop Competitiveness and Food Safety are issues indistinguishable from what United is working on.

It is telling that WGA doesn’t mention anything about trying to co-locate or rent desk space from United. One would think this would be more efficient as support services would not have to be duplicated and rent would stay “in the family” so to speak.

Obviously the devil will be in the details on this matter and we, of course, wish Matt and the WGA the best with its new, enhanced, Washington, D.C. presence.

Extreme vigilance, however, will be required if we are to prevent the permanent staff of this D.C. office from justifying its existence, and their jobs, by creating division in the industry as opposed to fostering cooperation.

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