Post election committee shuffles emphasize need for industry engagement, observers say

By Hank Schultz contact

- Last updated on GMT

Post election committee shuffles emphasize need for industry engagement, observers say

Related tags: Dietary supplements, Dietary supplements industry, United states senate

The landslide victory of Republican House and Senate candidates in the recent midterm elections will have broad implications for the dietary supplements business. But even with the GOP now holding majorities in both houses, it’s still business as usual, observers said. New members have to educated, something that takes the active involvement of industry.

It was an election of historic proportions, said Jim VandeHei, CEO of political news website Politico. VandeHei spoke on the subject at the recently concluded conference of the Council for Responsible Nutrition at Laguna Beach, CA.

“Republicans crushed it. There is no other way to slice it. In off year elections the people who vote are old and white, and old and white people like Republicans. These were historic margins for Republicans. Republicans will have the largest majority since 1928. The damage for Democrats was especially acute at the state level,”​  he said.  

New members, new relationships

But even with the bombastic nature of the results, the work that now needs to be done on behalf of the dietary supplements industry is what always needs to be done after an election cycle. Members of Congress who have been champions of the industry who are leaving, such as Sen. Tom Harkin, D-IA, take their relationships and knowledge with them, and those connections need to be forged anew, observers said.

“There are new members of Congress we have to meet with. We have to introduce ourselves and introduce our industry,”​ Dan Fabricant, CEO of the Natural Products Association, told NutraIngredients-USA.

“We’re looking forward to meeting the new members of Congress and anticipate an active first quarter as we work to get into every one of those offices to educate them on the benefits of dietary supplements as well as the value these products bring to the economy and the health care system,”​ said Steve Mister, president and CEO of CRN.

“There will be a substantial loss of institutional knowledge about DSHEA and its origins. This underscores the need for us to continue our efforts to engage and educate our congressional representatives about our industry, our consumers and the importance of DSHEA to them,”​ said Loren Israelsen, president of the United Natural Products Alliance.

Impact of majorities

A key aspect of how the industry seeks to influence policy in Washington is to engage with ranking members of key committees.  There will be a substantial amount of shuffling going on, now that the GOP has gained a majority in the Senate.  In a detailed breakdown for his members, Michael McGuffin, president of the American Herbal Products Association laid out where the power is shifting on key committees.  The Senate breakdown now stands at 52-46 in favor of the GOP, with a runoff election coming in Louisiana and the outcome of the election still to be determined in Alaska. In the House, a number of electoral outcomes are still to be determined, but the GOP will have its largest majority since 1946, McGuffin said.

Still, despite its gains, the GOP will have to attempt to work across the aisle, because President Obama still holds veto power, McGuffin’s statement said.

“It is important to note that despite the significant Republican electoral gains, the GOP does not have the 60 votes required to prevent Democratic filibusters, much less the 67 votes needed to override a Presidential veto. As a result, Senate Republicans will still need modest Democratic support for their measures in order to end the gridlock that has paralyzed the nation's capital in recent years,” ​the statement said.

New committee makeup

AHPA said Lamar Alexandar, R-TN, characterized by observers as a supplements supporter, will assume chairmanship of the Senate Health Labor Education and Pensions (HELP) Committee, the panel that oversees FDA in the Senate. The current chairman, Sen. Harkin, as noted previously, is retiring, and the committee’s new makeup will likely be 12 Republicans and 10 Democrats. With the flip in the makeup of the committee, Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-NM, who has been anointed by Harkin to some extent as his successor as a Senate champion of the dietary supplement industry, will be unable to take a seat on the committee unless a current Democratic member relinquishes his or her seat for another committee assignment.

In the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, the Senate panel that oversees the Federal Trade Commission, a quarter of the ranking Democrats on the panel lost their seats in the elections, AHPA said.

On the House side, a long-term industry opponent, Henry Waxman, D-CA, who is also the ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, is retiring. That committee oversees both FDA and FTC.  The position of ranking Democrat will be contested between Frank Pallone, D-NJ, an longtime friend of the industry and Anna Eshoo, D-CA.  A caucus vote will determine the outcome of this contest sometime this month.

Another longtime champion of the industry, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-UT, will assume new responsibilities. Hatch won a tight reelection battle in his primary in 2012 and so will now serve through 2018.

“It is big news that supplement champion Sen. Hatch will rise to chair the influential Senate Finance Committee that oversees trade, taxes and Medicare/Medicaid,”​ Israelsen said.

Need for speed

Orrin Hatch large
Sen. Hatch will rise to chair the influential Senate Finance Committee

Fabricant said the new GOP majority in the Senate and the reinforced majority in the House means the Republicans are potentially poised for quick action, even if the veto issue hovers over proceedings. Measures concerning the dietary supplement business have often enjoyed cross-aisle support.

“We need to show them this industry matters and matters for a lot of people. The Republicans have a very business-oriented agenda. When you have bicameral synchronicity things are going to get done that way, and could get done quickly.  They are going to have a very short time to govern in 2015. We try to look at election cycles two and three elections out, and the presidential cycle starts earlier and earlier. We expect the major candidates to start declaring in April.  So with the speed with which things could happen, we need to get members of industry involved early. When you get apathetic towards Washington that’s when things can get really dangerous for people’s businesses,”​ Fabricant said.

UNPA has been taking a different tack toward trying to influence national politics.  The organization has been pursuing a state-by-state strategy, seeking to influence members of Congress by connecting with them via their home districts.

“The importance of the United Natural Products Alliance’s state chapter initiative to build durable support for our industry at the local level. That is key to our future strength in Congress,” ​Israelsen said.

What might have been

Suzanne Shelton, managing director of The Shelton Group, a public relations and branding consultancy, has participated in the dietary supplements industry for several decades and has seen the fortunes of the two parties wax and wane. While the GOP has been a friend to industry, it has had a harder time making the case that is a friend to the consumer.

“A raise in minimum wage on a national level could have made products our industry sells within the grasp of a new segment of the population, the working poor. We saw an increase in sales when the economy tanked because more people couldn’t afford to get sick. This is certainly true of the working poor who would have been a good new market for our products,”​ Shelton said.

With the President holding the veto card, Shelton said the Affordable Care Act is unlikely to be dismantled, and the GOP might actually be able to make it work better by fixing some of its obvious errors, rather than removing it “root and branch”​ as was the rhetoric a few years ago.  And the GOP ascendancy might be good for business operations in general, Shelton said.

“We’re less likely to see new, more restrictive legislation, and will find more support in defeating it if we do. For our industry’s long-term sustainability, we need to cultivate and educate members of Congress on both sides on the aisle and continue to make the case that the products we sell keep the population healthier,”​ she said.

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