Two-thirds of the businessmen polled at the 65th annual meeting of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce here this week indicated they felt President Carter's economic policies either had no impact thus far or had been only slightly helpful. As for the future effect of administration policy, the pessimists outvoted the optimists, 48 to 35 per cent.
However, these 960 respondents, by approximately the same two-thirds margin predicted overall business conditions would be slightly or much better six months or a year from now. The edge on confidence went to the short term, 63 to 65 per cent. The hopes of 4 out of 5 for a business tax cut seem to have been dashed by Capitol Hill conferees, but the businessmen's desires for renewed diplomatic relations with Cuba (68 per cent) and Vietnam (53 per cent) appear to have more Washington support.
Two out of 5 of 875 Chamber members voting declared themselves generally opposed to Mr. Carter's energy policy, twice as many as those in favor. Most of those surveyed regretted the emphasis on conservation rather than on increased production and development.
Specifically, two-thirds of the respondents opposed proposals for a tax on "gas quzzlers" and 5 cent annual tax on gasoline. The chamber's official position calls for deregulation of new natural gas, relaxation of environmental standards, and unclear power plants as alternatives.
The chamber's newly elected chairman. William K. Eastham, was far more reluctant to criticize Carter administration policy than the poll would indicate. Eastham, who is president of Johnson wax, first met with the new Prisident last February, and says the Chamber has "continuous access to the White House." Of that meeting. Eastham said. "I found him more the nuclear engineer thatn the peanut farmer he was in the campaign." As for his energy policy, Eastham declared. "What we need is an American consensus; it doesn't matter who is on what side now."
One of hte main tasks the chamber's new chairman sets himself is to increase public confidence in business. Eastham, who has taken an active interest in consumer affairs at Johnson Wax, noted with pride his own company has kept an 80 per cent confidence factor while nationwide public confidence in business declined from 69 per cent in 1969 to 15 per cent 1976.
He said corporations can reverse this slide by voluntarily improving their relations with customers and employees. Like most businessmen, he is philosophically opposed to more government intervention.
When reminded that some company executives said they would not have made now questionable payments had there been a law against it, Eastham replied. "There is more value in meeting expectations of the public than in meeting the law." He expressed his personal unwillingness to tolerate bribes, adding he thought following the laws of a (foreign) country which does not outlaw bribes was a "copout."
Big business does have big problems. Eastham told the delegates in his inaugural address. "The attack on the American profit system has never been more relenless." He believes the answer lies in more citizen action, grass-roots participation to influnce Capitol Hill.
"In the past, we faced a Congress controlled by anti-business liberals," he said. "But now there is a big new 'swing vote' developing . . . They have a 'show me' attitude. What it takes to show them is a good case backed up by the folks in their districts."
Like most of his peers, Eastham opposes the proposed Consumer Protection Agency on the grounds that it could become a super agency, "going around supervising, investigating other governmental agencies." He rejected the notion of CPA supporters that it would provide the consumer a louder voice in government.
In fact, the chamber is convinced that the consumer already is heard too much in government circles and the courts. To counter this by presenting the "public interest" from the business viewpoint, the chamber established the National Chamber Litigation Center in March.
Initially funded with $100,000 in seed money from the chamber, the center eventually will solicit contributions from chamber members.