HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. — Matt Priest is preaching the good footwear word to Washington, D.C., policymakers, even during a legislative season where health care, Iran and Afghanistan dominate the political debate.
Priest, who took over as president of the Footwear Distributors & Retailers of America last February and is the former deputy assistant secretary for textiles, apparel and footwear at the U.S. Department of Commerce, said the footwear industry is in an interesting position, when many of its legislative priorities — such as the Affordable Footwear Act — align with the economic needs of the country. “It’s wonderful to go into a meeting [with a congressional member] and say, ‘This definitely will help your constituents, and the constituents of every district in this country,’” he said. “That’s very powerful.”
Footwear News caught up with Priest during the Footwear Traffic Distribution & Customs conference, held here Oct. 4-7. Priest provided an update on the Affordable Footwear Act, as well as the association’s stance on a variety of hot-button issues, including the Employee Free Choice Act and the possibility of an economic rebound in 2010.
FN: What is the status of the Affordable Footwear Act?
MP: That was introduced last year in Congress and had broad support across the aisle. We had 156 co-sponsors in the House and 14 in the Senate. It has been reintroduced in the Senate, and we’re working to get more support. We’re up to 16 co-sponsors now, including Sen. Dick Durbin from Illinois, who is majority whip in the Senate. That was a big win for us.
FN: Where does it go from here?
MP: We anticipate the House will introduce it this week. We will work to build co-sponsorships in the House as we’ve done before. It really sells itself. We don’t run into resistance on the policy side, which is encouraging to me. The challenge is finding a vehicle [for passage]. In a fall dominated by health-care reform, [we want to] make sure there’s a vehicle by which we can move this bill and drive home a point that it will be an immediate stimulus to American consumers of all walks of life.
FN: Could this be the one truly bipartisan bill that both parties can get behind?
MP: It is. To have conservative senators and liberal democrat senators on the same bill, especially one that affects trade, is a testament to our members and the footwear coalition that has built this bill because we have worked with each other to build a bill that we’re all happy with. It’s refreshing.
FN: What else are you working on?
MP: We’re working on the Miscellaneous Tariff Bill that expires at the end of the year. That’s a bill that was implemented in 2006, so it has had a three-year shelf life.
The MTB gathers hundreds of bills under one bill and reduces duties for three years on non-controversial items. Historically, it’s been chemicals, dyes, manufacturing inputs. Footwear hasn’t really been something that’s been explored. [But] that changed in 2006.
We have a number of lines that have duty-free treatment right now that expire on Dec. 31, so we’re working with our members and the original sponsors of the bill that was passed in 2006 to get the MTB process through. We’re hopeful that by the end of the year, we’ll have a new bill in place.
We’re also working on product safety with the new leadership of the [Consumer Product Safety Commission] and ensuring that we, the footwear industry, have a voice at every turn, especially with children’s product issues. We’re right there voicing our opinion and making sure folks are aware of the impact that the laws have on the industry.
FN: What is the FDRA’s position on health-care reform?
MP: We’re in a wait-and-see mode. We’re concerned about a program that mandates certain requirements, but we’re monitoring it.
FN: How do you feel about the Employee Free Choice Act?
MP: We’re vocally opposed. To me, it seems counterintuitive to have public elections in a country where every other election, from the dogcatcher to the PTA to the president, is private.
FN: How do you feel about the economy going into 2010?
MP: It’s still a tough slog. I think we’ve hit bottom and we’re slowly building back. As much as we would like to get back to where we were in 2006, to have a slow, methodical build and growth is a good thing.