VSAIA Lobbies Congress Hard

On March 21, as part of the 2013 National AIA Grassroots Legislative Conference, a coordinated contingent of Virginia Society/AIA members targeted the Commonwealth’s 11 representatives and 2 senators with messages of specific interest to Virginia architects and architecture firms.

AIA President Mickey Jacob, FAIA; First Vice President and Grassroots Chair Helene Combs Dreiling, FAIA; and U.S. GSA Public Buildings Service Commissioner Dorothy Robyn addressed the 800 Grassroots participants in the morning to get them enthused for the day’s work. In her message, Robyn explained her commission’s responsibilities, including facing an estimated $4.5 billion in needed new construction and repairs to existing federal properties.

The AIA Advocacy Network is a matter of leadership through enlightened self interest, Jacob said. “Let’s get America building,” he exhorted the assembled AIA architect leaders and component staff before they filed out of the Capitol Hyatt to lobby for the profession. Their driving motivation: Unlike many special-interest lobbyists, the AIA is duty-bound to deliver its message on strengthening a profession whose central tenant is public health, safety, and welfare.

Delivering the message to Cantor
From left, Abernathy, LeFever, Stewart, and French discuss specific legislative concerns.

From left, Abernathy, LeFever, Stewart, and French discuss specific legislative concerns.

In addition to a visit to meet Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), Inform tagged along with three VSAIA members to the offices of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.). The VSAIA delegation, which, in total, comprised 15 AIA members, carried four specific messages to their representatives on Capitol Hill.

VSAIA Legislative Director Duncan Abernathy, AIA; Jeanne LeFever, AIA; and Forrest French, AIA, met for more than a half hour with Wyatt Stewart, Cantor’s legislative assistant for financial services, taxes, small business, trade, economics, and telecommunications.

Their message included appeals to simplify the tax code for small businesses, strengthen the Energy Efficient Commercial Building Tax Deduction, provide architecture student debt relief for graduates who work for community economic vitality through the National Design Services Act, and focus government procurement on qualifications-based selection that is open and affordable for architecture firms of all sizes.

French began the conversation with ideas on reducing the regulatory burden on small businesses. Hiring a qualified accountant to calculate the tax obligations of even the smallest firm is in itself a financial burden, he pointed out.

Republicans in the House, who are focusing on tax reform and tightened federal spending at the same time, are not going to support reductions in taxes that are not revenue neutral, Stewart said. Cantor—who served on the House Ways and Means Committee before taking on his current position as the second most powerful House Republican—advocates a personal tax range of 10 to 25 percent, a corporate tax of 25 percent, and eliminating loopholes, Stewart said. The goal is to simplify the tax law and make business accounting more certain and less expensive.

“Keep banging on the door,” Stewart said in encouragement to the AIA’s lobbying effort. Tax reform as a general concept sounds good to most people right up until they start examining the details, which is when they start to realize how the law will impact their own situations. That is why Cantor’s office appreciates as much information as they can get on “the nitty gritty” of the effects of proposed tax legislation, he said.

LeFever took up the next of the issues, talking in specifics on how the 179D tax law—which allows up to a $1.80/sf deduction for certain energy efficiencies in new and retrofitted commercial buildings—works and doesn’t work as well as it might. Stewart pointed out that Congress may not get to that provision, originally enacted in 2005, before it expires this year. In that event, he said, the House leadership has the option to call for an extension to the tax credits until the law can get a specific detailed review.

Jessica Salmoiraghi, the AIA national director for federal relations and counsel, who also joined in the visit, helped illuminate the AIA’s position on federal procurement. With design-build becoming an increasingly common project delivery approach for federal facilities acquisition, the AIA would  like to see a fairer and more balanced set of procedures. Currently, she said, a design-build proposal—where a guaranteed maximum price may require 30 percent or more design completion—can cost a design-build entity more than a quarter of a million dollars to prepare, with a disproportionate amount of the work falling to the design team. When a “short” list of 15 applicants is asked to submit bids, the odds of winning even a large commission are prohibitively small, she said.

The next pitch, for investing in the next generation of architect leaders through support of the National Design Services Act, set Stewart to taking careful notes. The concept—which puts architecture graduates on the same footing as young lawyers and doctors who work in under-privileged areas of the country by providing assistance with their accumulated student loans—resonates well with Cantor’s vision for the future.

Later that same day, Paul Mendelsohn, Assoc. AIA, who heads the national AIA Government and Community Relations staff, reported that many other AIA component groups, who had visited their own legislators, had also recounted to him that this issue is getting a most favorable response from legislators in general.

To a final question in Cantor’s office—unrelated to the prepared issue points but recently in the architectural-press news—Stewart said he was unaware of the proposed legislation by Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah) to eliminate funding for the Eisenhower Memorial; reject the duly selected design developed by Frank Gehry, FAIA; and start the memorial design process anew. He did concur, though, that he understood the AIA’s position as explained:

The AIA called the legislation inappropriate because it fundamentally rejects the design, based on the objections of a vocal minority, and supersedes a competition selection process that has stretched over several years and that has adhered strictly to Congressional rules and regulations. Such a position would be a precedent abhorrent to time-honored selection criteria put carefully in place specifically to promote design excellence and obviate the fluctuations of political opinion.

Weeks of prep for a day of action

In all, Abernathy worked for weeks to schedule and coordinate the dozen VSAIA delegation visits over the course of that one day, targeting all 11 of Virginia’s Congressional district representatives as well as Sen. Tim Kaine and Sen. Mark Warner.

In addition to French and LeFever, the VSAIA members who took part were J.W. Blanchard, AIA; William Brown, AIA; Susan Brain, AIA; Corey Clayborne, AIA; Mary Cox, FAIA; Ed Gillikin, AIA; Christopher Kehde, AIA; David Klemt, AIA; Marci Parris; Sara Teaster, Eugene Thompson, AIA; and Daniel Zimmerman, AIA.

Nearly 800 architects and AIA component staff could be seen walking in determined groups among the House and Senate office buildings throughout the frigid windy morning and afternoon, many holding the fold-up paper-house leave-behind piece that featured facts and figures supporting the AIA’s 2013 legislative positions.

Additional national AIA initiatives

The visits coincide with the AIA joining a coalition of millions of small businesses in the call for comprehensive tax reform, which came in a letter expressing “strong opposition to tax reform that focuses on solely C Corporations while ignoring or paying scant attention to pass-through businesses and individual taxpayers.”

“Every day, nearly 70 million Americans go to work at a firm organized as something other than a C corporation,” the letter states. “These “flow-through” businesses, structured as S corporations, partnerships, LLCs, or sole proprietorships, represent 95 percent of all businesses and they contribute more to our national income and our job base than all the C corporations combined.”

Nearly 80 percent of U.S. architecture firms file taxes as so-called “pass-through” small businesses.

Among other AIA legislative priorities:

  • Repair and strengthen the portfolio of public buildings nationwide
  • Build sustainable, resilient, and vibrant communities
  • Reform government to build better with less.

See the full national legislative agenda.

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