Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

At around 4 p.m. on Dec. 11, the day that Congress voted on the $1.1 trillion omnibus spending bill authorizing another year of funding for the U.S. government, Roger Dow, CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, began recording three videos.

In the first, he essentially said, “Hallelujah! Funding for Brand USA, which promotes inbound travel to the United States, has been approved!” The second could be characterized as an expression of optimism along the lines of “We’re through the House, and hopeful for the Senate.”

The third expressed disappointment that Congress had kicked the can down the road, but vowed to keep fighting.

The day had become an emotional roller coaster. Dow had gone to bed the night before thinking approval was guaranteed. He sent a congratulatory text to Jonathan Tisch, chairman of Loews Hotels and founder of the advocacy group Business Travel Roundtable, which had merged with U.S. Travel in 2007.

“We’re done,” Dow typed, saying that the pending reauthorization completed what “you started 20 years ago.”

In return, Tisch thanked Dow for his work and ended the text “Go Giants.” (Tisch is treasurer of the New York Giants.)

In a reference to the team’s then 4-9 win-loss record, Dow wrote back, “May the Giants have a great Sunday. She’s now free — do you want me to ask Patricia to suit up and get the Giants over the goal line, as she did for this great effort?”

The reference was to Patricia Rojas-Ungar, U.S. Travel’s vice president for government relations, whose recent top priority had been renewing Brand USA funding.

The next morning, an ebullient Dow maintained his sunny outlook, even when, sitting down for breakfast with Sabre’s general counsel, Rachel Gonzales, someone handed him a copy of the Wall Street Journal in which a front-page story specifically questioned funding for Brand USA.

The story was illustrated with a photo of the Las Vegas Strip and suggested that Brand USA was at least partly pork that accrued to the benefit of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s Nevada base.

“It didn’t really worry me,” Dow recalled the next morning. He and I had previously arranged to meet and go over the status of Brand USA. “It would have worried me if the article had appeared two or three days before, when we weren’t yet in the omnibus bill.”

To get Brand USA funding into that bill had been no small task. There was broad support for the renewal of the Travel Promotion Act, which established and set up funding for Brand USA: It had passed Congress 347-57 and was unanimously endorsed by the Senate’s commerce committee. But it ran into a logjam of 400 bills that were also waiting for a vote by a polarized Senate that seemed intent to do as little as possible.

Worse yet, there was opposition among very conservative Republicans. Despite — or, perhaps, because of — Reid’s strong support, any of a small handful of senators who opposed it could keep it from the floor. U.S. Travel initiated dialogue with its most vocal opponents, and eventually Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said that while he still had philosophical misgivings, it was not a big enough issue to block a vote. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) also withdrew opposition on similar grounds.

But Mike Lee (R-Utah) could not be swayed from his position against funding, despite the urging of the state’s Republican governor, Utah’s tourism director, Salt Lake City’s convention and visitors bureau and, Dow said, “some people in the hotel industry who still have ties to Utah. Won’t mention names.” (Prior to coming to U.S. Travel, Dow had worked for Marriott International.)

“We knew we had a 6-to-1 plurality in the House and 70 votes in the Senate. If we could get it to the floor, no problem, but just one senator could stop it. Which Mike Lee did,” Dow said. “We were stuck.”

In other words, there was no real path other than the omnibus bill, so after that was secured, Dow relaxed.

But his sanguine mood changed when he got a text from lobbyist Rojas-Ungar just before he was about to record an update video for his members. “Not looking good,” she wrote.

It turned out that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was not happy with compromises made in the spending bill (unrelated to Brand USA) and was coming out against it.

“Ugh,” he wrote back. “Let’s hope they do the right thing after posturing a bit.”

That’s when Dow, who was attending a black-tie dinner honoring Hilton CEO Chris Nassetta that evening, decided to make three videos rather than one.

As he dressed for dinner, he got a call from Rojas-Ungar. Bad news: Pelosi had written a “Dear Colleagues” letter to all Democrats to vote “no.”

At dinner, he tried not to look at his phone, but texts kept coming. At 7:30: “Really worried. Does not look pretty. White House is not getting involved.” Then, a follow-up that President Obama had sent his chief of staff to intercede on the bill’s behalf.

The dinner concluded at 9:30 p.m.; at 9:33, he got a text from Jonathan Grella, U.S. Travel’s senior vice president for public affairs: House approves omnibus bill.

The Senate also approved it, without unexpected drama, two days later.

“The lesson here is not to give up when you’re on the right side of the angels,” Dow concluded. Another lesson, he said, is the power of grass-roots support.

And, I would add, the power of the Senate majority leader — power that will change hands next year. Brand USA is reauthorized for five more years; those years will be well spent maintaining good ties with current friends and figuring out how to turn skeptics into supporters before 2019.


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