Big business is back in business

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

There was a festive atmosphere at U.S. Chamber of Commerce headquarters Tuesday morning as the corporate lobby delivered its annual "State of American Business" address.

Margaret Spellings, the former Bush Cabinet officer who cashed out and joined the business group, made the introductions, telling members that despite "the worst economic climate since the Great Depression," the chamber had scored a "number of legislative victories, tremendous success in the elections and another strong year of fundraising."

Thanks to the chamber, Spellings boasted, "the American business community always has a seat at the table."

A seat? Business has just about all the seats at the table - and more on back order.

Fifteen million Americans are out of work, thanks in part to reckless Wall Street activities. Yet corporate profits are at record highs, companies are sitting on vast amounts of cash, and, after a tough two years, business interests are again atop the Washington power structure.

This return of corporate power comes in part because the revolving door between government influence and corporate paydays has begun to turn anew. Even President Obama has submitted to its centrifugal force. His new White House chief of staff, William Daley, comes directly from J.P. Morgan Chase. Daley scored that lucrative gig after serving as commerce secretary during Bill Clinton's second term.

As Daley came in through the revolving door, OMB Director Peter Orszag had just gone out. He cashed out to become a vice chairman of Citigroup, where his government expertise should be worth seven figures annually. One of Orszag's partners on Obama's economics team, Larry Summers, is returning to Harvard - but that won't stop him from delivering the keynote address to the Global Hedge Fund Summit in Bermuda.

The thrill of cashing out has been endorsed by Obama himself. Explaining press secretary Robert Gibbs's decision to depart, the president told the New York Times: "He's had a six-year stretch now where basically he's been going 24/7 with relatively modest pay." The poor Gibbs, who had been earning a "modest" $172,200 a year, is now contemplating making much more than that representing corporate clients.

At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, corporate interests are becoming increasingly brazen. Lobbyists have snagged key staff jobs in the new GOP House leadership and chief-of-staff positions in many new lawmakers' offices. On the day John Boehner was elected speaker last week, lobbyists were literally strutting their stuff on the House floor.

Bob Livingston, the former Republican congressman, was buttonholing members; he's the head of a lobbying firm that advertises Livingston as "the only practicing former chairman of the House Appropriations Committee." Also on the floor, Marty Russo, the longtime Democratic congressman who had just stepped down as head of the lobbying giant Cassidy and Associates, shook Boehner's hand.

A House Republican source says Livingston left when informed that, as a registered lobbyist, he was not allowed to be on the House floor.

Such behavior by lobbyists - both registered lobbyists and unregistered corporate "advisers" - has become more common. At last year's State of the Union address, Post congressional correspondent Paul Kane observed, on the House floor, former members Mike Ferguson, who runs a lobbying firm, and Jim Greenwood, CEO of the biotech lobby. Kane has also spotted former senator Bill Cohen, who runs a big lobbying and consulting firm, on the Senate floor; former representative Sherry Boehlert, now a lobbyist, in the Speaker's Lobby off the House floor; and lawmaker-turned-lobbyist Al Wynn entertaining clients in the members' dining room.

The Center for Responsive Politics has identified more than 340 former members of Congress, and 3,665 former staffers, in lobbying or related fields. The few rules to slow the revolving door do little, both because of the routine granting of waivers and because of loose registration requirements for lobbying.

All of this gave the business lobby much to celebrate as chamber members discussed the State of American Business over mini-muffins and banana bread Tuesday morning. Tom Donohue, the chamber's white-maned CEO, hailed the "new tone coming from the White House" since the elections - which the chamber influenced by spending tens of millions of dollars from donors kept anonymous, Donohue explained, so opponents couldn't "demagogue them." Donohue said he's "absolutely convinced" that the new business-friendly White House will move his way on regulation and trade.

A reporter asked Donohue for a suggestion of what corporate America, with its record profits, should do to put people back to work. "I got to think about this for a minute," Donohue said, then added: "I think the most important thing to tell a company is to return a reasonable return to their investors."

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