Legislative and Political Report

Balancing Act
ALPA lobbyists work overtime to protect airline pilots' interests in the legislative process.

Air Line Pilot, February 2004, p.28

While most Americans know little and care less about how Congress conducts the people’s business, ALPA’s 66,000 members take keen interest in how certain legislative packages are put together. That’s because the federal government regulates so much of their profession.

The line-pilot volunteer legislative coordinators and their legislative affairs committees act as information liaisons between their pilot groups and ALPA’s Government Affairs Department on legislative and political issues. 

The U.S. legislative session in 2003 was one of the most contentious in recent memory. While Congress considered several airline-industry–specific bills of vital concern to ALPA members—pension reform and cabotage provisions attached to the key FAA Reauthorization Bill, for instance—much of the deliberation on Capitol Hill reflected the growing division between the two major parties in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

With one party controlling both legislative bodies and the White House and turning more and more to an antilabor political philosophy, the job of looking out for pilots’ interests has become more than full-time. As a result, ALPA is managing its resources carefully so the Association can maintain a voice for airline pilots in the increasingly divisive Congress.

To manage all of the union’s legislative and political programs, ALPA’s Government Affairs Department, headed by Paul Hallisay, consists of four professional staff members and two secretaries, far fewer than the numbers for many other issue-oriented lobbying operations. The Department is charged with two primary but related missions: to advance ALPA policy on matters before the federal government, especially Congress, and to oversee ALPA’s political action program, ALPA-PAC. The Department also serves as a focal point for cooperative efforts with the AFL-CIO.

ALPA-PAC and lobbying go hand-in-hand. Participation through ALPA-PAC in the political campaigns of the union’s Capitol Hill allies, both Republican and Democrat, helps keep ears and minds open to the ALPA message and helps the Government Affairs lobbyists promote ALPA members’ legislative goals and initiatives.

That potent combination has led to many legislative successes through the years. Recently, ALPA influence and hard behind-the-scenes work by Government Affairs lobbyists during the 107th Congress resulted in bipartisan support for the Federal Flight Deck Officer program, which the Bush administration opposed. During the same session, ALPA succeeded in thwarting the attempt of Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) to open the anti-cabotage section of the Federal Aviation Act with an amendment to the FY2002 Department of Transportation Appropriations Bill.

Those battles were mostly fought and won, not on the floor of the House or Senate, but in the House–Senate conference committees that work out differences between bills passed by the two chambers. This effort requires long hours of close contact with conferees, committee leaders, and staff members. To gain congressional support, ALPA lobbyists primarily use a reasoned approach designed to educate key contacts on the merits of ALPA positions.

High stakes

Unfortunately, such victories are often short-lived, especially with a determined opponent. In 2003, during the first session of the 108th Congress, the ruling party has increasingly flexed its majority muscle, often circumventing normal deliberative procedures to get its way. Unrelenting pressure from the White House strengthened the antiunion resolve on Capitol Hill, and ALPA’s lobbyists spent even more time trying to stem the antiunion tide. And this situation could get worse, depending on the outcome of this fall’s federal elections.

The work is often like playing poker, with the good players holding their cards close to the vest.

"We who work in ALPA’s Government Affairs Department are hired because of our expertise in politics and in getting things done on Capitol Hill," says Hallisay. "We have to be discreet on some things; that’s just part of politics. But we always try to do what we think is best to advance ALPA’s legislative agenda."

With the current majority party often resorting to tactics that anger even its own members, the need for diligence by ALPA’s lobbyists has increased dramatically. Sometimes even "done" deals come undone when legislative leaders are willing to use closed conferences to add, delete, or change language of proposed bills, with no debate allowed. Sometimes, a single senator can derail months of work and compromise, as happened just before Thanksgiving 2003, when ALPA thought that Congress had written an agreement on pension reform that all could live with.

But the current administration doesn’t shy away from intervening in the legislative process, as was evident just before the Thanksgiving holidays. In an effort to torpedo short-term relief provisions in the Senate bill for pension reform, three Cabinet secretaries—Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, Treasury Secretary John Snow, and Commerce Secretary Donald Evans—applied direct pressure on Senate majority and minority leaders.

Increased diligence means more Department time spent on the Hill, which is where ALPA’s Government Affairs specialists earn their keep. In the current U.S. political climate, these specialists can no longer assume that a deal is a deal until the final vote is taken. They must be sensitive to all the subtle nuances while expecting major permutations at any time. On today’s Capitol Hill, even when it’s over, it ain’t necessarily over.

"ALPA’s lobbyists need to be up on the Hill physically to do the job," says government affairs specialist Kelly Hardy. "That’s the only way to educate members of Congress about ALPA’s issues and to enlist their support for our positions. That’s where the action is taking place, so that’s where we need to be."

Open channels

With the lobbyists so engaged in their primary duties, communicating with pilot members becomes a matter of priorities. The lobbyists must make quick and decisive judgments on what pilots need to know and what is too sensitive to reveal.

Fortunately, ALPA has designed a communications network for complex situations such as these. Instead of using word of mouth, ALPA has an ordered system of getting the word out to its information-hungry rank and file.

"We have a legislative coordinators’ program in place," Hardy says. "The idea is to have a legislative coordinator at the master executive council level and also a legislative coordinator for each local executive council. Obviously, we can’t talk to every ALPA member, but we want to get the right information out there in an efficient and effective way."

The system of line-pilot volunteer legislative coordinators is set up at the larger pilot groups and many of the smaller ones, with some even adding a legislative affairs committee to support their coordinators. The coordinators and their committees act as information liaisons between ALPA’s Government Affairs Department and their pilot groups on legislative and political issues. Coordinators are also tasked with encouraging their pilots to support ALPA’s Political Action Committee, ALPA-PAC.

ALPA’s Government Affairs Department provides a number of tools to help legislative coordinators with the their job, including the periodic "Legislative Update," which outlines developments on Capitol Hill on pilot-related issues, ALPA’s activities on those matters, and ALPA-PAC news.

When appropriate, articles, speeches, testimony, and other pertinent published information are sent along with the "Update." Legislative coordinators then disseminate this information to members through local newsletters, ALPA-PAC promotions, or other communications vehicles.

Much of this material is also posted on the Government Affairs/ALPA-PAC page of the ALPA website,

On really hot topics, such as the ongoing pension reform battle, the Department posts an "Action Alert" on ALPA’s website. The Action Alerts are calls for grassroots action on particular issues, posted after ALPA’s president, Capt. Duane Woerth, in consultation with Government Affairs staff, determines that grassroot ALPA-member involvement is appropriate. MEC legislative coordinators are notified of these Action Alerts via e-mail so they can start generating member participation immediately.

The Action Alert system provides a simplified communications process between pilots and their members of Congress. Pilots may send messages on the designated topic straight from their computers through the automated program.

A pilot simply types in his or her zip code and follows onscreen instructions from there. The system provides a suggested message, and pilots may create their own personal messages. Pilots may also communicate with Congress at any time on any topic of their own choosing by using the "Write to Congress" link, which is always posted on the ALPA home page, just after the member sign-in.

The Government Affairs Department also works closely with ALPA’s Communications Department when hot issues arise, combining forces to get critical information and calls for action out to ALPA members. This involves the communications specialists around the United States who pass the word to their MECs and line pilot members, often with the help of their Communications Committee chairs and using a variety of departmental communications tools.

The goal is to get the right information to the right people down the line as quickly as possible.

"This system gives pilots what they need—information—and it frees our lobbyists from talking to every pilot who calls in," Hallisay says. "This hierarchy allows all the pertinent government affairs and ALPA-PAC information to flow to the pilots through an ordered system of dissemination, primarily orchestrated by the MEC legislative coordinator. Any requests, concerns, or questions the pilots have then come back to us through the MEC legislative coordinators."

MEC legislative coordinators can adapt the information to suit their needs. For example, First Officer Russ Carnot, chairman of the FedEx MEC’s Legislative Affairs Committee, publishes a newsletter, Capitol Hill Report, which is designed "to acquaint [FedEx pilots] with legislative issues important to FedEx ALPA members."

F/O Carnot says the newsletter offers a more focused supplement to the updates that ALPA’s Government Affairs Department provides. The inaugural issue, dated July 2003, covers ALPA’s lobbying efforts to defeat an attempt to repeal FAA’s age 60 retirement rule and summarizes several pieces of federal legislation related to air cargo security.

Field work

As chairman of the United MEC’s Legislative Affairs Committee, Capt. Pat Gallagher works closely with ALPA’s Government Affairs Department and Communications Department. Living in Vienna, Va., a suburb of Washington, D.C., Capt. Gallagher has a bird’s-eye view of how the Government Affairs specialists work on Capitol Hill.

"When we’re working on a pressing issue, such as pension reform or FAA reauthorization, I’m in at least daily contact with Government Affairs," Capt. Gallagher says. "I’ve actually gone to the Hill with lobbyist Brendan Kenny several times, but that’s an unusual situation because the pending legislation on pension reform is such a volatile issue."

Standard operating procedure has Capt. Gallagher in weekly contact with the Government Affairs Department to stay current on legislative activities. That contact schedule might even slip to bimonthly if Congress isn’t in session.

When the information about legislation is significant enough to warrant widespread dissemination, Capt. Gallagher contacts the three people on his Committee and the LEC legislative affairs coordinators. They, in turn, ensure that the information reaches their members in a timely manner. This network approach allows Capt. Gallagher to prioritize the often huge amounts of information flowing out of Washington.

The flow works both ways. Capt. Gallagher also communicates frequently with the LEC legislative coordinators and his Committee members to stay current on the issues United pilots feel are important to their professional careers.

The system works well, Capt. Gallagher says, as long as the channels are kept clear of bottlenecks. When the information flow gets clogged at any level, the whole system can bog down, as when members contact the Government Affairs Department directly.

Capt. Gallagher says, "Members should first call their local committees or legislative coordinator.

"When the need for information is greatest," he emphasizes, "Government Affairs Department people are working overtime on Capitol Hill. Their primary job has to be at the Senate and the House, pushing ALPA legislative priorities, not in ALPA’s Washington, D.C., office, fielding phone calls from individual pilots."

Capt. Gallagher adds, "If our members don’t get the right information at the right time, then I’m not doing my job."—Rob Wiley, Staff Writer