More than 240 tire dealers, independent auto repairers and auto aftermarket executives from 37 states and the District of Columbia met March 1-2 in Washington, determined to make their voices heard on Capitol Hill.
Participants in the Aftermarket Legislative Summit met with their elected officials in support of four pieces of legislation:
* The Motor Vehicle Owners' Right to Repair Act, which would mandate criminal sanctions against auto makers that don't provide independent repair shops with vehicle repair and diagnostic information;
* The Small Business Health Fairness Act, which would allow small business associations to pool their members to form Association Health Plans (AHPs) to give them greater bargaining power for affordable health insurance;
* Asbestos litigation reform that would set reasonable contribution requirements for settlement funds and establish objective medical criteria for claimants; and
* The Stop Counterfeiting in Manufactured Goods Act, which would expand a current anti-counterfeiting law by requiring the destruction of equipment and materials used to make counterfeit auto parts and other goods.
Except for the addition of the anti-counterfeiting bill, the legislative agenda for this year's summit was exactly the same as at the last summit two years ago. But with a more receptive Congress and White House than ever before, summit speakers said, aftermarket industries have a real chance to obtain passage of their legislative agenda.
``Today could be the tipping point for the aftermarket,'' said Kathleen Schmatz, president of the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association (AAIA). She referred to the best-selling book, The Tipping Point, the thesis of which is, in her words, ``Change happens-not gradually, but in one dramatic moment. The Aftermarket Legislative Summit is a dramatic moment, and it's one that could carry us to victory.''
Some 4.6 million aftermarket employees serve about 200 million licensed drivers-and voters-in the U.S., and this is the point the aftermarket must stress in talking to elected officials, according to AAIA Chairman David Caracci. ``It's the Motor Vehicle Owners' Right to Repair Act, and that's the point we want to get across,'' he said, accentuating ``owners.''
The March 2 breakfast meeting emphasized the anti-counterfeiting and Right to Repair bills and occurred just before scheduled meetings between summit attendees and their elected officials. The two featured speakers were the congressmen who are the chief House sponsors of those bills.
Counterfeiting of tires, brakes, hoses, belts and other auto parts costs the aftermarket more than $12 billion annually in lost sales, plus an untold amount in highway deaths and injuries, litigation, warranty claims and lost reputation, said Rep. Joe Knollenberg, R-Mich., sponsor of the anti-counterfeiting bill.
``Counterfeiting is not a victimless crime,'' he said. ``When you're in the aftermarket, you don't want fake parts on your shelves or in your service bays.''
The Right to Repair Act hasn't yet been reintroduced, but it should be in a couple of weeks, said Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He and his staff are working to make the bill's language acceptable to the Federal Trade Commission, which objected to some parts of the original legislation.
``We've tried to work with the auto industry on a voluntary basis for the last four years,'' Rep. Barton said. ``Sometimes you just have to put your foot down, and three or four years is long enough.''
Rep. Barton is unconvinced that the voluntary agreement between the Automotive Service Association (ASA) and the auto makers for repair information Web sites is working. He cited an incident at a committee hearing last year, during which a New Jersey technician tried to download some information on an auto maker's site. ``It was like going through a rat maze,'' he said.
Although the AHP bill wasn't highlighted at the breakfast meeting, the Tire Industry Association (TIA)-one of the 11 aftermarket organizations besides AAIA that sponsors the summit-has made that legislation its No. 1 legislative priority. President Bush is known to favor an AHP bill, as is Rep. Donald Manzullo, R-Ill., chairman of the House Small Business Committee.
Other aftermarket organizations also participating in the summit included the Alliance of Automotive Service Providers; the Automotive Maintenance and Repair Association; the Automotive Parts and Rebuilders Association; the Automotive Warehouse Distributors Association; the Alliance of State Automotive Aftermarket Associations; the Coalition for Auto Repair Equality; the Heavy Duty Distribution Association; the International Truck Parts Association; and the Service Station Dealers of America.