On the edge of ‘fiscal cliff’ lobbying

The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza profiles the business community’s role in the fiscal cliff negotiations. (Theresa Poulson/The Washington Post)
Reporter December 5, 2012

The intense lobbying around the impending “fiscal cliff” has introduced a new cadre of business advocates. They speak in uniformly grandiloquent terms about the tough decisions necessary for the good of the economy and the citizenry.

Despite the lofty words and an aura of grass-roots bipartisanship, nearly all the players are backed by groups with pecuniary or political interests.

Here’s a primer to some of the new kids on the block — and some of the old guard who are feeling a bit neglected.

Business Forward has led the way, bringing a range of small-business leaders and corporate executives from across the country to private meetings at the White House. It has ushered in more than 350 executives since the election to discuss fiscal policy with senior staff members.

The group keeps a low profile and describes itself as nonpartisan. Its Web site touts two dozen or so major companies as members, including Google, United Health Care and Wal-Mart. But the group was, in fact, set up after the 2008 election by Democratic operatives to help the White House pursue political goals in battleground states and in the perpetual battleground of Washington.

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Top-level White House adviser Valerie Jarrett attended an early organizational meeting for Business Forward at the Hay-Adams hotel in 2009 and has since met with dozens of business leaders flown in by the group.

Some Obama backers hoped that Business Forward would emerge as an alternative to the GOP-leaning business groups that dominate Washington’s world of trade association lobbying and politics. That didn’t happen, but Business Forward did provide a pipeline for sympathetic communications with business leaders and their communities.

Often the visiting business leaders would return home to Ohio, Colorado and other battleground states, where they would write letters to community newspapers and appear on local television stations, supporting the Obama strategy of getting favorable messages to the public unfiltered by Beltway interests.

Business advocates in Washington shrug off the new group.

“I have never seen them,” said Dirk Van Dongen, president of the National Association of Wholesaler Distributors. Van Dongen is active in several business coalitions in Washington, including the Tax Relief Coalition, which opposes tax increases on employers. “They are not an organization of consequence,” he said, “except for providing cosmetic and optic advantages for the White House.”

The executive director of Business Forward, Bert Kaufman, said his organization differs from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other trade groups because it doesn’t lobby or have a major Washington infrastructure.

“What sets us apart from other business groups is that there is no filter between the business leaders and the policymakers,” he said.

Van Dongen, who has backed Republican presidential candidates, said his group and others like the Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business are the real players in Washington. He criticizes the White House for cutting them out.

“The president is ignoring the majority of the business community” in the fiscal cliff discussions, he said.

The U.S. Chamber is still the most influential lobbying outfit in the capital. But the chamber has lost its premier status — at least in the theatrics of the White House-led fiscal cliff discussions.

In part, that’s because top White House officials view the chamber with suspicion because of its hard-line support for GOP candidates over the past decade. The chamber, like other business groups, describes itself as nonpartisan.

On Wednesday, the president spoke to a longtime rival business group, the Business Roundtable, where he sought support from its leading CEO members for his approach to the fiscal cliff, which includes raising tax rates on the wealthiest Americans.

The chamber’s president, Tom Donohue, has visited the White House since the election to discuss the fiscal situation, but his visits are less frequent and less visible than that of another business-oriented group, Campaign to Fix the Debt. Fix the Debt boasts support from more than 300,000 signatories nationwide, with chapters in 17 states and a group of chief executives who appear regularly at the White House and on televised public affairs shows.

Although it promotes a Main Street image, the group’s $43 million budget comes almost entirely from major corporations, whose chief executives came together to support the group. Today, its success is due in part to its energetic president, Maya McGuineas, a press-savvy veteran of high-level Washington budget talks.

Its highest-profile chief executive, David Cote of Honeywell, is in demand, including at the White House.

But no business sector is in demand as much as small business, the symbol of independent American entre­pre­neur­ship. For years, its leading group has been the National Federation of Independent Business . It is well funded and active nationwide, but the White House has also viewed it with suspicion because of its preferring GOP candidates.

For that reason, some smaller and lesser-known groups, such as the American Sustainable Business Council, have had a seat at White House meetings. That group, like others invited to executive branch meetings, is made up of business leaders more inclined toward Democrats.

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