Five years ago, when business-friendly Republicans took full control of Congress for the first time in 40 years, car dealers were among the groups who saw the historic political shift as an opportunity.
Dealers talked about improved prospects for reforming the federal Superfund, cutting estate taxes, banning mandatory binding arbitration in franchise agreements and passing a national title branding law - among other things.
Now, at the dawn of 2000, with the Republican revolution either stalled or dead, the dealers' Washington agenda includes, uh, reforming the federal Superfund, cutting (or repealing) estate taxes, banning mandatory binding arbitration in franchise agreements and, well, you get the idea.
This is not to say there have not been some victories. With dealer lobbying support, a law was passed in 1996 to phase out the luxury tax on cars and trucks. And dealers helped win approval in 1997 of a modest trimming of the estate tax.
But with Democrats feeling ever more optimistic about regaining control of at least the House of Representatives in November, there is reason to believe businesses will look back at the past few years as the Era of Unfulfilled Expectations.
'People were hoping for more,' said Mark Isakowitz, a partner in the Washington lobbying firm of Fierce and Isakowitz, which has a wide variety of business clients. 'It was expected that all business would have to do was hand in its checklist and it would all be taken care of.'
Instead, by the end of 1995, Republicans and the business community learned 'the presidency is still relevant,' he said.
Overall, Isakowitz maintained, the climate in the capital has been good - with restraint on government spending and taxes and on new regulatory schemes. Problems arose instead for all kinds of interest groups when they sought action on specific agenda items, especially those linked to tax law.
In short, dealers haven't been the only ones who have had difficulty getting legislation enacted.
Marshall Hebert, a Shreveport, La., car dealer who chaired the government relations committee of the National Automobile Dealers Association in 1995, said he knows many of his colleagues are restless about the pace of government activity. It is their custom, after all, to 'make a lot of big decisions real quick.'
But as a self-described Democrat who votes Republican, Hebert's own view of recent Washington history is that checks and balances have been working as intended.
'I'm not really that disappointed,' he said.
At least having Republicans in control of Congress and a Democrat in the White House seems to have been good for the economy, said Hebert, owner of Hebert's Town and Country Chrysler-Jeep.
Still, divided government is a big reason why some major parts of the dealers' agenda were thwarted.
Congress, for example, passed a $792 billion tax cut last July that would have repealed the estate tax over a 10-year period, but President Clinton vetoed the bill, and there was no serious attempt at compromise.
The stalemate over taxes was the most obvious manifestation of the general gridlock that developed between Republican lawmakers and the Democratic president, made worse by the poisonous atmosphere left from the impeachment of Clinton.
A year ago, Tom Greene, NADA's COO for legislative affairs, predicted 1999 would be one of the worst years ever for getting things done in Washington.
In its aftermath, he said, it wasn't quite as bad as he expected - Congress did at least consider measures such as an estate tax repeal, and lawmakers listened to arguments from dealers and manufacturers to keep fuel economy standards frozen for another year.
Yet, on most issues the end result was the same as if his prediction of full-blown political warfare had been right on the mark, Greene acknowledged. Nothing dealers wanted became law.
Now, with congressional and presidential elections coming up this year, there is virtually no hope of action on such a contentious subject as taxes until 2001, he said.
Prospects are only slightly better that dealers will win their long sought exemption from some provisions of federal Superfund law.
They say they were acting in good faith when they sent used motor oil to recycling firms, but in some cases those firms dumped the oil at sites that are now controlled by federal hazardous waste law. The law requires anyone who contributed waste to bear a portion of cleanup costs.
More optimistically, Greene said chances are much better for passage of a measure to prohibit mandatory binding arbitration in dealer franchise agreements, the issue that has risen to the top of NADA's agenda.
Reasons for his optimism: Lawmakers from across the political spectrum have signed up as co-sponsors. The Clinton administration doesn't appear to object to the bill. And manufacturers seem to be ratcheting up their lobbying opposition, a sign that the bill could move.
Greene said the challenge for NADA has been to overcome Republicans' natural aversion to intervening in contract disputes between parties. It takes some explaining to convince them that these are take-it-or-leave-it contracts from the manufacturers, not the product of give-and-take in normal contract negotiations.
Of course, obstacles remain, and Senate procedures are among Greene's chief concerns. In many cases, it is possible for a single senator to block a piece of legislation.
Such Washington peculiarities are a reason NADA has begun inviting state dealer association executives to visit the nation's capital and become more familiar with the federal system.
Most of the executives are accustomed to dealing with state legislatures that meet for comparatively brief sessions each year and in more orderly fashion either pass or reject the bills that are brought up.
The hope is that the executives, who meet regularly with dealers, will be able to pass along a better understanding of the hurdles their proposals face in the more Byzantine Washington and further impress on them the importance of staying in contact with members of Congress.
Some dealers are already politically astute. But Greene said, 'There are others that kind of look at it from a distance and are frustrated and confused about the whole thing. And angry sometimes.'
Harry Stoffer is an Automotive News staff reporter in Washington, D.C.