To many people, the term "PAC" conjures images of smoke-filled rooms, suitcases full of cash and corrupt politicians. And don't forget about those negative ads!
The reality, of course, is more complicated. When it comes to influencing public policy, trade associations, nonprofits and industry organizations face a choice: hope the strength of your policy arguments wins the day or buttress your policy work by engaging in the political process.
As laid out in this column repeatedly over the past few months, decisions are being made every day in Washington and in state legislatures that will have an immediate and tangible impact on ASTA members' bottom lines and on the way they run their businesses.
Airline ancillary fees, taxes on your service fees and independent contractor regulations are just a few examples of Washington's impact on your business. With so much at stake, then, it's no surprise that ASTA has chosen to engage in politics, and this column will explain why and how we do so and how we as an industry are better off for it.
A political action committee (PAC) is an organization created to support or oppose political candidates or legislation. PACs connected to corporations, labor unions or trade associations, like ASTA's, raise money by soliciting voluntary contributions from their employees and members and spend money by donating to political candidates.
All of this is heavily regulated by the Federal Election Commission. PACs are the only legal means by which groups of individuals can ensure that their contributions go to those candidates for federal offices who understand the unique concerns of the industry and provide associations with a far greater impact than would be possible through isolated, direct contributions.
Many industry groups, including airlines, GDSs, online travel agencies, tour operators and cruise lines, have made the concept of a PAC part of their government affairs efforts, all working within the system to better their advantage. (Click on the image, left, for a larger view of a chart of PACs in the travel distribution sector.)
For more than 30 years, ASTA has had a PAC known as the American Society of Travel Agents Political Action Committee, or Astapac. Its goal is to elect pro-agent candidates up and down the ballot. During this time, Astapac has been instrumental in building political influence for the nation's travel agents, and it sends a powerful message of unity on behalf of the travel and small-business community.
Put simply, Astapac enables us to pool our resources and influence public policy. According to a Washington think tank that monitors PACs, Astapac is the fourth-ranking PAC in the lodging and tourism industry. The accompanying chart will give you a sense of how Astapac measures up against a sampling of travel distribution sector PACs.
So how do PACs, including Astapac, decide whom to support? Choosing which candidates will receive Astapac funds -- generally incumbent and aspiring members of Congress -- is a rigorous process involving the chair and members of the Astapac Committee and ASTA's Government Affairs and Industry & Legal Affairs staff.
The Government Affairs staff analyzes congressional voting records, statements and seniority on key congressional committees and identifies key players in the area of travel and tourism policy as well as those who best understand and support the travel agency industry.
It is worth noting that campaign contributions through Astapac do not equate to "buying votes." There is never a quid pro quo; contributions are simply meant to ensure that responsible and dedicated legislators who support the travel agency industry remain in or are elected to office.
To ensure that the money is well protected and properly spent, many detailed reports are required by the Federal Election Commission from both Astapac and the candidates it supports. Both must account for the sources of their funds and the purposes for which these funds are spent.
ASTA's Government Affairs team works tirelessly to protect the interests of travel agents in Congress, the White House and federal agencies as well as in all 50 state legislatures. And our success is showing.
For example, in just the past few months:
- The work devoted to educating policymakers paid dividends as the White House's National Travel and Tourism Strategy acknowledged the key role travel agents play in today's travel marketplace.
- The Department of Transportation's Advisory Committee on Aviation Consumer Protection invited us to testify at their inaugural meeting and brief them on the role travel agents play in today's travel marketplace and the importance of giving agents and consumers full access to airline ancillary fee services.
- At the state level, pro-agent travel insurance deregulation bills were signed into law in Florida, Kentucky and Minnesota, while onerous service tax bills were defeated in Connecticut, Oregon, Tennessee and Virginia.
Having a PAC undoubtedly assures us a "seat at the table," a metaphor that brings to mind the old Washington saying: "If you're not at the table, you're on the menu."
At the end of the day, if we are truly to build our industry's political power, we need our members to get involved and get committed to ASTA's political activities.
With so much at stake, we as an industry can't afford to rely on the strength of our policy arguments alone. We must engage in the political process. We help make the decisions that affect us, or we let others make them for us.
To ensure that our voices are heard, we must build up our collective political power, and that means building up Astapac. Doing so will help us achieve our public policy priorities, which means not only a stronger travel industry but safe, affordable and enjoyable travel experiences for the American public.
Eben Peck is ASTA's vice president for government affairs. Contact him at email@example.com.