Update December 11, 2023. In the days since this interview was recorded, the U.S. House of Representatives has passed the Choice in Automobile Retail Sales (CARS) Act with bipartisan support, crossing another key hurdle on its way to becoming law! Thank you for making sure your voice gets heard in Congress—you can learn more about the CARS Act and SEMA’s government advocacy programs in the article below.
While the annual SEMA Show might be the most visible component of the Specialty Equipment Market Association, the SEMA organization does a lot more to benefit the automotive aftermarket industry. And nowadays, perhaps SEMA’s most important efforts center on its involvement in government affairs.
From emissions regulations to off-road trail access, SEMA makes sure that automotive aftermarket industry members and consumers (that’s you) have a voice in these political conversations.
Summit Racing works closely with both the SEMA and Performance Racing Industry (PRI) trade groups to help these initiatives. Click the link below to learn more about some of the current issues facing our industry and the gearhead community.
To better understand these topics and SEMA’s advocacy efforts, we sat down with Karen Bailey-Chapman, Senior Vice President, Public and Government Affairs with SEMA for a 30 minute podcast episode. Together with her team, Karen leads the SEMA Action Network (SAN), an organization that helps educate voters, connect with lawmakers, and preserve the rights of automotive enthusiasts. Learn more about the SEMA Action Network here.
You can listen to the whole interview here or at the OnAllCylinders podcast section, and we’ve pulled 10 excerpts from the conversation that you can read below.
1. Tell Us a Bit About Your Role Within SEMA.
“I’m the head of government and public affairs for SEMA, which means everything we deal with regarding the government—lawmakers, regulators, and so forth—that is all managed through my office. We have an eight person team that’s based both in Washington D.C. and California.
“We work at all levels of government, local, state, and federal, so it certainly keeps us busy.”
2. How Long Has SEMA Been Involved in Government Affairs?
“The SEMA Action Network has been around for quite a while, but we’ve had pretty explosive growth over the past several years—just because of some of the other legislative initiatives that SEMA and PRI have taken on.
“We also have a federal political action committee (PAC) and we actually launched a Super PAC this year.
“The way that government affairs is done, in today’s world of politics, it has to be much more of a 360 approach to how we get policy changed or moved. So today, now more than ever, the individual voices of industry are so critically important to the work that we do.”
3. What’s The Difference Between the SEMA PAC & Super PAC?
“Under federal law, SEMA itself cannot donate directly to candidates. But our members can, and they can contribute to our PAC, so it becomes a tool for SEMA to be able to support the lawmakers that support us. The SEMA PAC is our way to pull together the resources of our individual members, to then be able to donate and support individual candidates.
“Super PACs have lot more freedom. There’s no limit in how much we can accept from donations, unlike the federal PAC. We also don’t have limits on if we can accept corporate dollars. It creates the ability for us to run what’s called an ‘independent expenditure’ campaign for a candidate.
“We can’t coordinate with the candidate—but we can do our own research, our own work, to educate voters on an issue that matters. So it allows us to be more flexible, to invest more dollars into really having an impact on campaigns.”
4. What is the Right to Repair Act?
“As vehicle technology becomes more computerized and complex, we want to make sure, particularly from an aftermarket perspective, that our folks have access to the systems, the ECUs, to be able to plug-in and appropriately access the diagnostics and do the proper calibrations—so that when we do modify vehicles, not only can the new products talk to the systems, we’re also able to calibrate them properly to operate safely.
“The goal is to ensure that our folks, the repair shops, have access to the data, the systems, to be able to modify or customize the vehicle.”
5. What Are The Challenges for the Right to Repair Act?
“The reality is that the American consumers overwhelmingly support—I think it was like 70 to 80 percent when we did the polling—the right to modify or customize our vehicles. [Laughing] There aren’t that many issues these days on which that many Americans agree on. So we’re in a pretty great position.
“Our stumbling blocks are with the manufacturers, they’ve got their own business models to protect. And they certianly have a formidable lobby in Washington as well.
“The other part of it is other industries—like medical devices and smart phones—that say ‘Hey, everybody likes the car guys, so let’s attach our right to repair onto their legislation.’
“That doesn’t help us, because they have issues that are obviously unique to their products. So we try to keep it clean and stick to the automotive aftermarket industry.”
6. Does the Reception from Lawmakers Reflect That 80% Support?
“We have a significant number of cosponsors on the legislation, it’s bipartisan legislation—which, again, is very unique in American politics today. So lawmakers get it, they understand the consumer piece of it.
“But then you also have lawmakers that have OEs in their districts or some other sort of constituency that’s pushing back on it.”
“When it comes down to the actual American consumer, we’re the ones that win on that issue—and so it becomes a question of how do we continue to elevate and push that point.”
7. Explain the “Preserving Choice in Vehicle Purchases Act.”
“When the federal government passed the Clean Air Act, it did allow for an exemption in California to do its own emissions standards. California has in place a zero emissions mandate for 2035 and it bans the internal combustion engine. As part of the Clean Air Act, California still needs to go to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to get a waiver, to allow for the exemptions it’s asking for.
“So right now, that exemption is in front of the EPA for consideration. What Congress is doing with the Preserving Choice Act is to say that the EPA shall not grant this waiver to California.
“And that matters for a few reasons. The first is, since the creation of the federal law, 17 other states have attached themselves to California’s emissions standards. When you translate that into numbers, it’s 140 million Americans—almost half of our population.
The other issue is the ban on the combustion engine. When the automobile came to market, the government didn’t outlaw the horse.
And so, from a SEMA perspective, we don’t believe that the government should be choosing the technologies that the consumer will have to adopt. We believe that the market and innovation should be driving what tomorrow’s technologies are.”
8. What’s the “Choice in Automobile Retail Sales” (CARS) Act Then?
“I see the CARS Act and the Preserving Choice Act as partners. But what’s different in that CARS Act is, since California issued its mandate, the EPA has now come out with new proposed federal emissions standards that will, essentially, now force the entire U.S. into that one technology choice.
“And so what the CARS Act does is oppose those proposed rules that the EPA put forward. It will also prohibit the EPA from using the Clean Air Act as a mechanism to ban technologies—or to choose technologies for the American consumer.
“So I keep those two together because the Preserving Choice Act deals specifically with the California waiver, while the CARS Act goes after the EPA’s rules and re-asserts Congress’ authority.”
9. How Long Do Campaigns Like These Usually Take?
[Laughing] “The difference between state lawmaking and federal lawmaking is that state legislatures tend to move a lot faster. The federal level moves a lot slower—and these days a LOT slower. Which for a community of racers [laughs], that’s just painful.
“When legislation is introduced, it’s alive for two years at the federal level, because the bodies turn over every two years. The only constant is change.
“It could take four years, it could take ten years, it just depends on the nature of what’s going on at the macro level environment, and also finding ways to insert the policies into other mechanisms. Just because you have a standalone bill, doesn’t mean that’s the bill that’s going to pass. Maybe we can get a piece of the bill passed through appropriations because we find a lawmaker that’s sympathetic—or the leadership’s allowing us to do it.
“It gets a little more complex, and that’s when the government starts to look a little more like a road course as opposed to a straight line.”
10. What Can People Do to Support These Efforts?
“Start by visiting the Summit Racing Legislative Alerts site. And if you visit the SEMA Action Network site, you can sign up for action alerts on a lot of different issues that we’re working on at all different levels of government.
“Writing those letters is really important, because offices do take count of the letters coming in on issues and seeing what they’re hearing from their constituencies. So it does matter.
“But if you’re somebody that has a facility—a shop, retail store, warehouse, whatever it may be—invite your lawmakers to your facility and develop a relationship. Our industry is a pretty huge deal, we employ a lot of people, 1.3 million Americans across the country.
“Invite your lawmakers in. Whether that’s a local lawmaker, state lawmaker, or federal lawmaker, telling your story is very important.”
Hear this interview in its entirety in the OnAllCylinders Podcast series, available wherever you get your favorite podcasts.