Billy Johnson, ISRI’s chief lobbyist, was named a Top Lobbyist of 2021 by the National Institute for Lobbying & Ethics (NILE) on Nov. 17. Johnson took some time out of his busy schedule to discuss the honor with Scrap News, as well as some of his proudest career accomplishments, and issues he’s excited to tackle next.
Tell me about your career and how you got into lobbying.
I grew up in the Washington, D.C. area, and lobbying is the job. My dad was a very influential economist in the policy-making world, so I was exposed to lobbying and policy making early. My first professional experiences with lobbying came while working for law firms in Washington, where I worked on several issues related to environmental policy. One day I applied for a job with ISRI, I was hired, and the rest is history.
Did you apply for the position with ISRI because you had an interest in recycling or did the position itself capture your interest?
Believe it or not, I’ve always been interested in recycling. I worked for the Republican National Committee, and they have a photo of [former President] Theodore Roosevelt at their headquarters. He created the United States Forest Service, and he also established 150 national forests, 51 federal bird reserves, four national game preserves, five national parks, and 18 national monuments on over 230 million acres of public land. He viewed himself as a conversationist, and I view myself the same way. Recycling is the most conversationist activity that any of us can do today.
I used to be a professional sailor. One of my proudest early accomplishments is getting marinas and yacht clubs to recycle. I remember how proud I was in the late 1990s/early 2000s when the Newport Bermuda Race, the oldest regularly scheduled ocean race, made recycling a requirement. What you brought on the boat you had to recycle.
One of my early defining moments was when I met Roy E. Disney, the longtime senior executive for the Walt Disney Company. He regularly competed in, and won, the California-to-Hawaii Transpacific Yacht Race. I asked him what his secret was, and he told me that he’d used the plastic debris in the ocean to guide him on his journey to Hawaii. It sickened him that there was so much debris in the oceans, which is one of the reasons Disney parks are so adamant about properly recycling plastics.
What’s your proudest victory as a lobbyist since joining ISRI?
I’d probably say the accelerated depreciation tax allowance, which enables recyclers to buy and deploy new equipment with improved technologies sooner and operate with greater efficiency. Tax allowances also help the development of new technologies that enable the processing of recycled materials that otherwise would be difficult to process into higher quality commodities. So many of our members benefited from this, and they were very appreciative of our efforts.
I’m also proud of the work we’ve done on railroads. Our industry is now the poster child for why the railroads need to be reformed. Next, we’re going to show that our industry plays a key role in building all the new planned infrastructure [laid out in the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act]. People don’t realize how much of the materials they use every day come from recyclable materials. And that’s why it’s so important to recycle because it’s coming back to you. Your soda can might not come back as a soda can, it could come back as a car. The $75 million Recycling Enhancements to Collection and Yield through Consumer Learning and Education (RECYCLE) Act, which was part of the INVEST in America Act that was signed into law in November, was also a crowning moment for ISRI in 2021.
When I first came to ISRI we didn’t have as much bipartisan outreach on Capitol Hill. Over the years, we’ve made recycling nonpartisan, so Republicans and Democrats are working together on bills for recycling, which probably wouldn’t have occurred even 15 years ago.
What do you enjoy most about being a lobbyist?
Learning about an industry and its issues and transcribing them into your own words. Then going out and telling lawmakers about the industry and figuring out ways to solve issues related to the industry. We’ve had several heavy-duty issues over the years, and it’s always fun explaining the industry’s role in the economy and why it’s important to the preservation of the earth and its natural resources. I also enjoy educating policymakers and earning their trust. Trust is key. You can talk about the industry and make it palatable to them but if they don’t trust you, none of it matters. So, it’s important to be truthful in everything you do as well.
What was your reaction when you learned you were receiving the NILE 2021 Top Lobbyist distinction?
Shocked. I didn’t apply for it. To be honest, I didn’t think I was in the realm of people who got that award. When I see the other top lobbyists, it’s overwhelming to count myself among them. My sister made a joke that if I was named to the top 100, that must’ve meant only 99 other people were nominated. Only a sibling can hit you with a shot like that [laughs]. In reality, there were more than 40,000 eligible lobbyists. So, it’s a big award and I’m honored.
What’s the next industry issue you’re looking forward to lobbying on behalf of?
Railroads. Those issues never end, but we have a great opportunity to make the industry shine. Another thing we’re looking forward to is getting rid of the commodity exemption.
We fought in the trenches for a long time, and nobody paid us any attention. Now, people are paying attention. We’re testifying on Capitol Hill, we’re being named in bills, and presidents have even mentioned us when talking about the importance of recycling. Nowadays everyone is thinking about sustainability and recycling is a major part of that. We’re in a great position now and a lot of people have helped get us there. We’re no longer sitting in the backrow, we’re up front now.
If you could give an up-and-coming lobbyist one piece of advice, what would it be?
Always be truthful and be passionate about what you do. Love who you are working and advocating for because people can see through it if you don’t. If you’re working for someone just for the paycheck and don’t believe in the cause, you should get a different job.
One of the things they say on Capitol Hill is that when you walk past the Capitol, if you don’t get a chill down your back, it’s time to leave. That chill is the awe factor you have for the work you do on a daily basis. When you see a law passed or a change in the Federal Register, you realize you’ve changed a policy. You’ve made the country better and hopefully moving toward a greater union.