Propane retailers regularly visit congressional representatives and their staffs on Capitol Hill during the National Propane Gas Association’s (NPGA) annual Propane Days lobbying event in Washington, D.C.
Those visits largely take place in the individual offices of congresspeople, where retailers discuss their businesses and share related legislative needs. Members of the Senate and House of Representatives do occasionally visit propane companies at their business places, but a congressional visit to propane-related businesses happens less frequently.
At least two congressmen paid visits to propane-related businesses this summer, though. Rep. Bob Latta, R-Ohio, spent time at propane equipment distributor Bergquist Inc.‘s facility Aug. 18 during the company’s annual open house in Toledo, Ohio. Six days later, Rep. Ryan Costello, R-Pa., visited retailer Eddinger Propane Gas Inc.‘s facility in Bally, Pa.
Hosting a U.S. congressman may sound like a monumental task. But Phil Squair, NPGA’s senior vice president of public and governmental relations who attended the Eddinger Propane event, says businesses stand to gain tremendous value from the congressional connections they make.
“What always stands out to me when I watch our members in action is how little time and effort it takes to do this kind of event,” Squair says. “Sure, [Eddinger Propane Secretary] John [Eddinger] hung some patriotic bunting and put Rep. Costello’s name on his storefront sign. He probably also spent some time briefing his employees and washing his trucks.
“But you know what? Rep. Costello got a good sense from his half-hour visit of just how many people in the district rely on Eddinger Propane for winter fuel deliveries, and his staff knows whom to call with propane-related questions,” Squair adds. “It doesn’t get any more successful than that.”
Eddinger Propane’s experience
John Eddinger first met Costello at Propane Days in June 2015, when he, his son Jacob and Shelby Metzger, executive director of the Pennsylvania Propane Gas Association (PAPGA), sat down with Costello’s legislative assistant to lobby for propane.
Costello, who represents Eddinger’s district, didn’t attend the sit-down. But he spent a few minutes with Eddinger and his son afterward, posing for photographs and expressing an interest in visiting Eddinger Propane later in the year.
Three weeks later, Eddinger says, he received an email from Costello’s office with a request for a visit. The opportunity excited Eddinger, but it also presented him with a number of questions related to hosting the congressman at his business place.
“I was very nervous with this coming up in terms of what to talk about,” Eddinger says. “I was intimidated, because it’s not every day you have a United States congressman stopping by your plant.”
Eddinger Propane had hosted local and state representatives over the years, but never a representative from the federal government. One of Eddinger’s first preparatory moves was to reach out to NPGA.
“That was probably one of the best things I did,” Eddinger says. “NPGA’s representatives are there as a resource. Anyone thinking about doing something like this should take advantage of their availability.”
Specifically, Squair and Matt Bisenius, NPGA’s director of legislative affairs, helped Eddinger prepare talking points for Costello’s arrival, the retailer says. Metzger, meanwhile, brought a propane-powered Ford pickup that Costello had the opportunity to fuel.
Eddinger also used the opportunity to introduce Costello to some of his employees. He shared the company’s background and how the business evolved into one that’s almost entirely propane focused. And he gave a tour of Eddinger Propane’s grounds, showcasing the company’s storage tanks and how bobtails are filled.
In addition, the visit was an opportunity to thank Costello for his support of H.R. 3236, a bill that includes a provision equalizing excise tax rates for LP gas, liquefied natural gas and compressed natural gas. The visit also presented an opportunity to reinforce legislative topics Eddinger discussed in Costello’s office earlier in the summer.
“It never hurts to have name-to-name, face-to-face recognition with your congressman,” Eddinger says. “You never know what’s going to happen down the road. Having a friend in Washington and having those staff contacts is absolutely beneficial.”
“The fact that John has met twice now with Rep. Costello, both in Washington D.C., and on a plant tour back in Pennsylvania, illustrates that legislators want to meet their constituents and learn about their businesses and concerns,” he says. “These meetings are important because they lay the foundation for future communications.
“In Rep. Costello’s case, this is particularly useful since he is a member of the [House] Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which has jurisdiction over many propane industry issues.”
Latta is also a useful industry connection because he serves as co-chair of the Congressional Propane Caucus, which was formed to engage members of Congress, their staffs and the public on important issues related to the propane industry and propane consumers.
Knowing Latta is caucus co-chair, Bergquist’s Gary Bozigar called Latta’s office ahead of the company’s August open house in Toledo with an invitation for the congressman. After speaking with a staff member, Bozigar followed up with an email invitation.
About a week later, Bozigar received a phone call confirming Latta would attend the company’s event.
“I know him from being in the community,” says Bozigar, an inside sales rep at Bergquist. “He’s a pretty laidback individual, and he’s very open to knowing what’s going on in his district.”
Latta arrived at Bergquist around 9 a.m. for the start of the open house. According to Bozigar, Latta met with company representatives, Ohio Propane Gas Association leaders and retailers who attended the event. Bergquist’s Bob Barry, Don Heller and Bruce Montroy walked Latta around a propane autogas dispenser and discussed propane as a motor fuel with him.
“We emphasized the economic advantages of installing a propane dispenser for fleets compared to other alternative fuels,” Bozigar says.
Bozigar appreciated Latta’s willingness to visit with propane stakeholders. He says it’s vital for the industry to establish congressional relationships.
“Our industry doesn’t have the funding that the natural gas lobby does,” Bozigar says. “Propane is a very grassroots lobby. Any individual congressman you can work with separate from our lobbying efforts is very important to our industry.”
Bozigar recommends propane stakeholders reach out to congresspeople with invitations to visit their businesses. A visit is an opportunity to show them the value the business provides the district, he says.
“Most representatives want to know what’s going on in their district, and they’re interested in learning new things,” he says. “It’s a good chance to talk about fuel taxes and keeping everything on a level playing field.”
Notes for next time
A congressperson’s presence at a propane facility is also a potential opportunity for outsiders to visit. At least that was Eddinger’s experience.
Eddinger was surprised when a few locals showed up at his facility. Eddinger Propane didn’t promote the visit to the public until a few hours before Costello’s arrival, when a storefront sign was changed to welcome the congressman.
The change gave a few hours’ notice to the community, and a half-dozen people arrived hoping to gain access to the congressman, Eddinger says.
“Some of them had pressing concerns they were talking to the staff about,” he says. “They (Costello and his staffer) kind of got cornered by these people. One guy was dealing with an air quality issue on his property and figured he could talk about the issue with the congressman here.”
But Costello told Eddinger the welcome sign was touching. No other business had greeted Costello in such a manner in his short tenure in Congress, according to Eddinger.
“I did want to welcome him with that sign,” Eddinger says. “I didn’t want to have it up for two weeks, though. Still, [members of] the public are constituents to him, and they’re customers to us.”
So meeting both Costello’s interests and the public’s were areas Eddinger wanted to serve.
“If I could take one thing back, I maybe would have made it more tailored to an individual visit,” he says. “As nice as it was putting the sign out front, it did bring potentially unwanted attention.”
Eddinger also learned the opportunity he was afforded in Costello’s visit was rare for an area business.
“I believe they do less than a half a dozen per year,” Eddinger says. “It’s not something they do a lot, so that surprised me.”
Afterward, Eddinger also realized that spending 30 minutes with a congressman isn’t as intimidating as he anticipated. He says NPGA’s and PAPGA’s involvement eased his concerns.
“Use NPGA or your state propane association,” Eddinger says. “Between those two, they’re going to make any visit as successful as possible and much easier on the host.”