By  on February 24, 2010

WASHINGTON — The retail and fashion industries largely increased their level of spending on lobbying last year, pouring millions of dollars into influencing critical policies on trade, health care, organized retail crime, credit card fees and union organizing.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Sears Holdings Corp., Tiffany & Co., Hanesbrands Inc., J.C. Penney Co. and Abercrombie & Fitch all boosted their spending last year on lobbying the Obama administration and Congress, according to the government’s recently released lobbying figures.

Target Corp. and Limited Brands Inc. cut back on lobbying expenditures. (See box below.)

President Obama’s signature issues, including health care reform, climate change and clean energy proposals, and financial regulatory reform all stalled in Congress last year and have been in limbo in the early part of 2010.

Apparel brands, retailers and industry trade groups, opposed to many of the far-reaching policy proposals that would impose tough new regulations on the business community, saw their money spent on lobbying as a great return on investment.

But there were fewer lobbying successes in the trade area, where many of the industry’s trade expansion priorities failed to lead to congressional action under a Democratic-controlled Congress and White House.

The industry’s two top retail lobbying groups cited the congressional impasse over the Employee Free Choice Act that would boost unionizing efforts last year as the one, clear-cut lobbying victory of 2009.

“Clearly, I think our efforts on EFCA paid out great dividends,” said Steve Pfister, senior vice president for government relations at the National Retail Federation, which spent $2 million on lobbying in 2009 compared with $2.1 million in 2008. “That was organized labor’s top priority. The lobbying efforts by the NRF and the broader business community really stopped EFCA in its tracks.”

The AFL-CIO spent $2.26 million in 2009 compared with $1.7 million in 2008 and focused much of its time and resources on EFCA and health care reform.

“We haven’t closed the book on EFCA at all at this moment in time,” said Thea Lee, deputy chief of staff for the AFL-CIO, adding that though the union was “disappointed” that neither health care reform nor EFCA moved last year, there are signals that both initiatives could see action this year.

While it is still unclear whether labor groups and Democratic leaders can strike a compromise this year on the union bill, the prospects of such a measure moving appear slim, particularly in a congressional election year.

Pfister said the success or failure of lobbying efforts hinges on numerous factors and is largely driven by the political climate and agenda of the party in control. He said on issues like interchange fees, hidden fees credit card companies charge merchants every time a consumer purchases a product with their cards, “there was a more receptive ear with the Democrats.”

Wal-Mart, Target and Limited Brands all highlighted advocacy against EFCA, which called for unions to be allowed to have card-check elections instead of closed ballots, in their government lobbying forms.

John Emling, senior vice president for government affairs for the Retail Industry Leaders Association, also called the lobbying initiative against EFCA a success but he acknowledged that in other areas such as employer mandates in health care reform legislation, which RILA and the NRF opposed, the business community’s advocacy was “ignored” by Congress.


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