Bringing scores of industry members to Capitol Hill for a day to talk to key Senators and Representatives about dietary supplements and natural products is a huge undertaking. Some will be new to in-person advocacy, and some will be veterans of the art, but all will need to be brought up to speed on the unified messages that best serve the industry. In one recent case, a flurry of legislative activity involving dietary supplements threw a last-minute challenge at supplement industry members gathered for a day of relatively easy education and outreach in Congress.
The Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN) held its Day on the Hill last month with more than 75 of its member companies present and close to 40 Congressional offices involved in meetings. CRN is not the only nutrition-focused trade association to bring members to Congress, but its approach is unique. Attendees visit with offices and key committees in groups not necessarily tied to state constituency. “We bring legal regulatory and scientific experts into key committees of jurisdiction—commerce, health etc.—to engage with senior communications staff and new staff on dietary supplement issues," explained Mike Greene, vice president of government relations for CRN.
Greene said CRN was well-prepared going into the event, which this year had no planned “asks"—often the industry has a specific piece of pending legislation or action they ask Congressional members to support or oppose. “Two weeks out, the goal going in was to thank members for passing DASCA [the Designer Anabolic Steroid Control Act, passed in December 2014]," Greene said, adding the group would also encourage Senators and Representatives to join the Dietary Supplement Caucus (DSC).
Last year the event had several “asks" surrounding safety and quality issues. This year, the main issue had been the New York Attorney General investigation of herbal supplements, but Congress prefers to stay out of state affairs, according to Greene, so CRN planned to mitigate concerns on the Hill about the AG issue without directly talking about the case. “We then talked about encouraging more funding for FDA and the effect of the leadership vacuum there right now," he said. “Everyone needs FDA to be up to speed and enforcing the law."
Then two weeks before the Day on the Hill, CRN learned Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) introduced three amendments to the military authorization bill. The amendments dealt with dietary supplements in the military. They proposed the creation of a military-specific adverse event report (AER) system, a program for monitoring supplement intake by military personnel, and a requirement for third-party certification for all supplements sold on military bases.
Greene said CRN realized the amendments were duplicative and unnecessarily burdensome, and they opposed them outright. Opposing the amendments became the last-minute “ask" in the Senate. “We expected a lot of this to be resolved before our Day on the Hill, but they ended up being resolved that day, right then and there," Greene said. The amendments were effectively dead, but 100-percent confirmation wouldn’t come until a few days after the Day on the Hill.
CRN’s Day on the Hill made another late adjustment to factor in an investigation launched by Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri) and Susan Collins (D-Maine) the day prior, focusing on how dietary supplements are marketed to senior citizens. The Senators had reached out to 15 retailers and sent a four-page letter to FDA. “In essence, they asked every question you could possibly think of in that letter," Greene said, noting CRN had to pivot quickly and figure out how to best brief participants on the best way to persuade and advocate on behalf of responsible industry. The adjustments were easier thanks to the many subject matter experts CRN had originally brought on board. In fact, the day gave a select group of CRN attendees a chance to pop into Sen. Collins’ office to talk about the issues.
The rest of the plan went off without a hitch and provided two-way communications. Several key House members visited the CRN contingent in its morning gathering on Capitol Hill. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), co-chair of the DSC and newly appointed chairman of the powerful House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, kicked the day off, followed by appearances from a pair of Congressmen on the Energy and Commerce Committee Reps. Brett Guthrie (R-Kentucky) and Mike Pompeo (R-Kansas). Pompeo talked about his GMO labeling bill, which was the subject to a health subcommittee hearing the next day. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-New Jersey), ranking member of the Energy and Commerce committee, also spoke, as did Rep. Antonio "Tony" Cardenas (D-California), who provided a unique perspective on dietary supplements as a user himself and as a politician with a history in state-level legislation related to supplements.
The middle of the day featured the scheduled meetings between CRN groups and specific Congressional offices, sometimes involving multiple offices in one meeting. Greene recalled one standout meeting that featured both the majority and minority counsel for the Senate HELP (Health, Education, Labor and Pensions) committee. “In the past we would have met with just the majority counsel and staff, but this time they came together to listen to us," Greene said. “It was a really good meeting; we spent about an hour exchanging ideas, talking supplements, regulatory issues and concerns we had."
Greene said the joint meeting was the committee’s idea. “It is commonplace now in committees of jurisdiction to get the same message to both offices," he explained. “It is not much different than Sens. Hatch and Harkin telling industry to come in with one voice."
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) recently retired from a long career in Congress, where he was a consistent champion of nutrition and supplement issues. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) is reportedly on his final term before retirement, and he was one of several Senators to stop by and talk to CRN attendees in an afternoon gathering.
Hatch is now chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and Senate president pro-tempore—he is third in the line of succession to the presidency and now has his own Secret Service detail. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico), one of the newer industry allies and a Senate leader (along with Hatch) for the DSC, spoke about how including dietary supplements in allowable flexible spending account (FSA) purchases would save money for both consumers and the healthcare system due to improved health from better nutrition regimens. Sen. John Boozman (R-Arkansas), a member of the DSC, spoke about his interest in dietary supplements and the importance of CRN members’ being on the Hill and reaching out to Congress on key issues.
Greene noted many of these Congressional allies are now in a great position to help the industry. “I don’t know if 15 years ago I would’ve thought we’d have such great friends in powerful positions," he said, referring to the likes of Chaffetz, Pallone and others. The only caveat Greene pointed out was that someone like Chaffetz will be busy overseeing many troublesome areas of the government, so dietary supplements will be just one of many industries looking to him for help.
Overall, the event was a success, despite the curveballs thrown by Durbin, Blumenthal, Collins and McCaskill. The turnout for the day of advocacy was up from previous years, as is the trend according to Greene. “Every year we do this, attendance grows," he stated. “In some cases members bring in new people, and in other cases new members to CRN decide to participate." Unlike in years past when CRN has a mini-session on Lobbying 101 the morning of the event, the association decided to hold this educational session the night before in a nearby hotel. “The interest in this event is tremendous, as members are eager to remind Congress the mainstream industry cares about all these issues and embraces reasonable legislation and regulation," Greene said.
Photos by Paul Morigi, courtesy of CRN.