Rep. Bilirakis Featured in The Hill: Reforming and improving Brand USA

July 17, 2014

Reforming and improving Brand USA

By Rep. Gus Bilirakis

July 17, 2014

Since 1961, the United States has had a national tourism policy devised by Congress, the goal of which is to “promote increased and more effective investment in international tourism by the States, local governments, and cooperative tourism marketing programs.”  Twenty years later, in 1981, President Reagan signed the National Tourism Policy Act into law, which developed international travel to the United States to improve the economy.  Most recently, Congress enacted the Travel Promotion Act, which created what is now known as Brand USA.

Brand USA is a public-private partnership that serves as the nation’s first cooperative destination marketing organization.  The organization is charged with growing America’s share of the global travel market.  Through a combination of voluntary private sector contributions and a nominal fee on foreign visitors, Brand USA’s activities are aimed at influencing increased global visitation to and spending in the United States, without a cost to U.S. taxpayers.  To increase and ensure the accountability and effectiveness of Brand USA, I have introduced H.R. 4450, the Travel Promotion, Enhancement, and Modernization Act of 2014.

A number of provisions in the legislation will shine a spotlight on Brand USA’s activities, ensuring fair scrutiny of the program’s actions by Congress and the American public.  The bill requires Brand USA to establish specific performance metrics to measure the impact of Brand USA’s marketing efforts and to demonstrate its cost and benefit to the U.S. economy.  It clarifies that, despite being a public-private partnership, Brand USA is subject to the same requirements as federal agencies, such as its obligation to respond quickly to audits by the GAO - Congress’ investigatory arm.  The legislation also dramatically improves the threshold at which Brand USA must explain its expenditures, ensuring much more disclosure than previously required about how the entity is operating.

To improve Brand USA’s corporate governance, my legislation strengthens the requirements for professional experience necessary to be appointed to Brand USA’s Board of Directors.  Because Brand USA conducts international promotional campaigns with a budget in the hundreds of millions of dollars, it operates similar to a multinational corporate entity.  It is important that the Board of Directors be up to the task of such an entity’s fiduciary responsibilities.  If there is ever a future question about Brand USA’s finances or decision making, the financial competence of the Board of Directors who oversee its operations will undoubtedly be scrutinized.  That is why my legislation seeks to ensure the Board is properly qualified.  Additionally, the bill statutorily requires Brand USA to establish a competitive procurement process and to affirmatively certify that any contracts it enters into are competitively bid.

Finally, Brand USA has had the legal authority to compel the U.S. travel and tourism industry to pay annual fees to fund its activities.  This legislation repeals that authority.  Public-private partnerships should be cooperative, voluntary efforts.  If Brand USA is not properly working with the private sector, the private sector should be able to terminate its activities and not be compelled to prop up a program that is not working.

In a time when the American public’s top interest continues to be economic growth, Brand USA’s mission is worthwhile and consistent with decades of sound policy.  However, Congress should make every effort to push reforms that improve the operations, management, and disclosure of programs it enacts.  That is what H.R. 4450 will accomplish, and that is why it is worthy of support.