Organizations representing all 50 states and all sectors of the tour and travel industry as well as its partners in other sectors of the economy, late last week delivered a letter to Congress calling for a renewal of Brand USA before the 115th Congress is history. Brand USA’s funding was inadvertently diverted in the Balanced Budget Act of 2018. If you wonder how that could happen, consider just this one line (one of hundreds of such references in the Balanced Budget Act of 2018, which was passed by Congress last February): “That such amount is designated by the Congress as being for an emergency requirement pursuant to section 251(b)(2)(A)(i) of the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985.” What?
Unfortunately for those who support the work of Brand USA (Legally, it is still the Corporation for Travel Promotion), the agency has become an easy target for those who believe that funding for such activities should not be a government responsibility. In fact, it receives up to $100 million a year from revenue collected from international visitors from Visa Waiver Program countries to the U.S. when they register their travel through the ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization). Of the $14 collected from each visitor, $10 is made available to match contributions received by Brand USA from private sector partners.
Since the revenues are not levied on U.S. taxpayers, they are not “taxpayer dollars.” Still, this notion has not stopped Brand USA critics in Congress and in the federal government from attempting to redirect the funds to other government activities.
Brand USA has survived such attacks before—most notably at the end of 2014 when U.S. Travel Association lobbyists were able to navigate channels on Capitol Hill and managed to get its reauthorization tucked away in an Omnibus Appropriations Bill.
A Bigger Boat: Aware that it faced the possibility of another last-minute battle, US Travel early this year was behind the creation of the Visit U.S. Coalition, which includes such organizations as the following: American Gaming Association; American Hotel & Lodging Association; American Resort Development Association; American Society of Association Executives; Asian American Hotel Owners Association; Cruise Lines International Association; International Association of Exhibitions and Events; International Franchise Association; National Restaurant Association; National Retail Federation; Real Estate Roundtable; Society of Independent Show Organizers; Travel Technology Association; and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Thus far, the organization has raised the profile of the urgency of the Brand USA situation, and the agency is hanging on through the last-minute funding bills.
Three possible scenarios: As Brand USA seems tethered to the life via temporary appropriations measures, Tori Barnes, senior vice president of government relations for US Travel, provided us with a concise status report from the organization’s government relations team on Brand USA’s current situation, as well as its immediate, near-term and long-term prospects. Following are what Barnes described as the paths available to Brand USA’s supporters:
- Omnibus Passage: The best-case scenario: Congress averts a shutdown by passing an omnibus spending measure—essentially, one large catch-all funding bill—that includes a reauthorization of Brand USA through 2027. While this is our ideal outcome, it is not the only path forward.
If Congress chooses to pass an omnibus spending measure without a Brand USA fix, there will be other opportunities to secure the program’s reauthorization in another vehicle in the first quarter of 2019.
- Continuing Resolution: Congress may vote on another short-term resolution that would keep the government funded for a limited amount of time while negotiations continue. The short-term resolution could result in: the passage of an omnibus with or without Brand USA; another long-term resolution (which could also result in the passage of an omnibus with or without Brand USA); or, if subsequent negotiations ultimately fail, a government shutdown at a later date.
If no deal that includes Brand USA is reached, the opportunity to get the program reauthorized in first quarter of 2019 will remain.
- Shutdown: A government shutdown could end in the passage of an omnibus or a long-term continuing resolution into next year which may also include Brand USA. If a Brand USA fix is not included, there will still be another opportunity to get a deal done in Q1.
Said Barnes: “Of the many initiatives sidelined by the budget debate, Brand USA is among the best positioned, with a course charted for every scenario moving past next Friday (Dec. 14th). More than 580 travel industry organizations signed the letter sent to members of Congress last week touting the many economic benefits of Brand USA, and urging Congress to act on the program’s reauthorization. Last month, 36 Republicans and 34 Democrats signed a similar letter to House leadership, and U.S. Travel members have penned numerous op-eds in support of Brand USA. U.S. Travel will continue to push Congress toward Brand USA’s inclusion in a funding bill, and is confident that that the program will be ultimately be reauthorized, as it has been in the past with overwhelming bipartisan support.”