by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
That’s one potential lesson from Tory Newmyer’s article in the latest Fortune magazine about the Business Roundtable’s recent performance on Capitol Hill.
Suspend your disbelief for a moment, fellow citizens. Here is a fact that defies everything you’ve come to know and believe about the workings of American policy: Big business is a mere featherweight when it comes to getting its way in the nation’s capital. In terms of shaping the broad domestic agenda, that seemingly formidable entity known as “corporate America” is, in reality, a piker. Don’t get us wrong. Washington, we know, is jammed with some 12,000 registered lobbyists (with many thousands more operating in the shadows) who daily, feverishly, often expertly work the levers of government to secure narrow breaks for their company clients. Legend are the stories of corporate giveaways tucked into the latest government-funding “Cromnibus”—a term that sounds as unholy and gluttonous as it is. In a marvel of behind-the-scenes tinkering, we are well aware, emissaries for Wall Street banks managed to peel back the Dodd-Frank rule squeezing their ability to trade derivatives, as other legislative wranglers worked their magic for telecom giants, defense contractors, and countless others.
All told, business interests plowed a staggering $2.78 billion into lobbying last year in hopes of shaping the policymaking process, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics. They spent hundreds of millions more on political campaigns. And yes, without a doubt, the money bought access to legislators, key aides, and agency officials. The access brought influence. The influence, in turn, was often reflected in changes the companies pushed for: targeted tax breaks, tweaks in legislation, stalled regulations, and new impediments for their business rivals. The tale is a familiar one.
But here’s the strange twist in the saga: For all the billions spent and the K Street swagger, for all the crab-cake receptions, phone-bank blitzes, and hallway huddles, for all the giveaways gotten and special deals secured, corporate America as a whole didn’t get any of the major items on its legislative wish list. None. As in zero.
Consider these four big-ticket asks: an overhaul of the tax code, new foreign-trade agreements, a long-term plan for federal debt reduction and the budget, and comprehensive immigration reform. Those are the long-stated legislative priorities of the Business Roundtable, an elite group of 203 leading CEOs and perhaps the closest thing to an organizational self for big business.
Perhaps Newmyer ought to give more thought to the notion that big businesses prefer special deals that enhance their own fortunes to broader goals designed to boost all businesses and taxpayers. That theory would surprise no one familiar with the concept of cronyism.