Among its many political achievements during the past 75 years, the National Tire Dealers & Retreaders Association is particularly proud of persuading Congress to eliminate the federal excise tax on tread rubber in 1984. To fully appreciate the results of what Executive Vice President Philip P. Friedlander has called the ``toughest political fight'' in his 42 years on the association's staff, it is necessary to recognize that:
1) not only had the tread rubber tax been in existence for approximately 28 years; but,
2) government officials had proposed raising the existing five-cents-per-pound tax rate a whopping 400 percent!
Not only did the association and its political allies stave off such a potentially disastrous rate increase, but they were able to persuade the Congress to remove the existing tax altogether-an extremely rare occurrence in governmental circles.
Moreover, had the huge rate increase taken place, according to Mr. Friedlander, there would be little or no price difference between retreads and new tires.
Making matters even more difficult, he recalls, was that the association had found itself with less than five days to alter the government's plans to raise the tax as a means of financing construction of the federal highway system.
Mr. Friedlander's account of the political infighting that took place regarding this issue offers ample illustration of just how active today's tire dealers and their representatives have become in legislative and regulatory circles both in Washington and elsewhere.
The association's legislative triumph was actually the dramatic climax of a long-running battle with government officials dating back to 1956 when the tax was first enacted.
The final chapter began when Secretary of Transportation Drew Lewis assured Mr. Friedlander that independent tire dealers would have nothing to fear from the administration's then-forthcoming tax proposals.
But, weeks later, when the wraps came off the administration's tax pack-age, Mr. Friedlander and his staff were shocked to learn Mr. Lewis was proposing to hike the tax rate on tread rubber from five to 25 cents per pound.
Recognizing what was at stake, the NTDRA's chief administrative officer decided to call in his chits-employing whatever good will and political favors were due the association after years of involvement at the federal policy- making level.
At the time, Mr. Friedlander also was serving as chairman of the Small Business Legislative Council, a coalition of some 100 small business associations that collectively represented nearly 5 million small business people. This and previous coalition work provided him with high-level contacts useful in such emergencies.
``I phoned a senior member of the White House staff at 7:00 a.m. and told him we were in deep trouble,'' said Mr. Friedlander, declining to name the official. ``I said the administration had not kept faith with its promise and he ought to do something about it.''
In response, the White House official agreed to convene an ``inter-agency'' meeting and ``see what he could do.''
Meanwhile, Mr. Friedlander and his tire dealer cohorts went to work lobbying members of the House Ways and Means Committee.
The result was that Secretary Lewis soon found himself under pressure from both the White House and the committee and quickly backed off his previous proposal to hike the tax.
At this point, Mr. Friedlander and his group decided to go for broke. The association and its tire industry allies decided to press Congress for nothing less than total elimination of the tax. Therefore, it was time to pull out all the stops and apply every ounce of political pressure the association and its allies could muster in lobbying for ouster of the tax.
Before it was all over, he said, more than 60 association members had come to Washington to talk with lawmakers and others who might play a role in the final outcome.
Meanwhile, other dealers and retreaders sent telegrams or made telephone calls to their legislative representatives.
In Congressional testimony, Mr. Friedlander pointed out that the tax was bringing in only $29 million annually-yet its existence could jeopardize the welfare of some 3,000 small-businesses employing up to 50,000 people.
``We recommend that-instead of raising the tax-you eliminate it,'' he told Congress. And, with no administration opposition from Secretary Lewis or anyone else, that's exactly what Congress did in 1984 when the resulting legislation became effective.
``Without White House help, we never would have persuaded a cabinet official to reverse his position like that,'' said Mr. Friedlander. And such high-level help wouldn't have been available, Mr. Friedlander contends, had he and other NTDRA staffers, such as the late W.W. Marsh, not paid their dues over the years by being involved in the making of public policy.