The stately expanse of The Homestead resort in Hot Springs, Va., doesn't exactly resemble a maximum security prison, particularly in the fall, when its wooded approaches have been painted for the autumn.
But there was a kind of jailhouse grimness and gloom among some of the 100 or so corporate chief executives and retired CEOs who gathered there last week for the fall meeting of The Business Council.
By their reckoning, the American manufacturing sector seems singled out for punishment by government actions that fall disproportionately its way, and much of the blame lies with a Republican administration and a president they backed all the way.
Their main complaint remains the overvalued dollar, the consequence of political and economic policies that have produced record budget and trade deficits.
The dollar's strength simply overpowers most of the things that American manufacturers can do to make themselves more competitive, says Edward G. Jefferson, chairman of E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. Their investments in research and automation, their efforts to raise quality, boost teamwork and toughen their marketing generally have been nullified by the dollar's impact on prices and profits.
Now they face tax reform proposals from the administration and the House Ways and Means Committee that would undercut business' ability to invest in its future competitive strength, Jefferson says.
The Du Pont chairman spelled out his protest in even more detail in a speech to the Boston Chamber of Commerce Tuesday. "In general, the administration plan -- and the even more onerous proposal developed for the House Ways and Means Committee -- place the heaviest share of the tax-increase burden on the core manufacturing industries already encountering the greatest difficulty in domestic and world markets," Jefferson said.
"Lower tax rates for individuals may seem appealing, but if they come at the expense of higher taxes on business it will inevitably cost jobs and reduce the chances for sustained economic growth . . . . "
Another outspoken corporate chief is Edmund T. Pratt Jr., chairman of Pfizer Inc. Big business, he says, has been "beating on the door of the administration for 2 1/2 or three years on the strength of the dollar and, in general, we've gotten nowhere," Pratt said in a recent interview.
The problem doesn't originate with President Reagan. "We don't see any president a lot," Pratt said. "I feel as close to this president as I have to any. Most of us have strongly supported him in his campaigns . . . .
"I think we get the message through, but they're bouncing that off what they see as other priorities . . . . There are a lot of things to balance. If I was the president, maybe I'd be doing what he's doing. But it's critical from our part of view."
"If you took a random sample of 100 CEOs, the overwhelming top priority would be deficit reduction," said John M. Albertine, president of the American Business Conference, a lobbying group of mid-sized, high-growth companies.
"Until the deficits -- both budget and trade -- are brought down, they're going to continue to focus on the issue and be frustrated," Albertine said. CEOs are generally frustrated by the compromises and fence-straddling of politics and the inherent confusion of government. "When they come to Washington and see the chaos of government as a whole, they get frustrated. And when they don't see action on what they see as the most critical problem, they are deeply offended.
"They're used to making tough, hard decisions. And they're used to taking flak for it," Albertine said. So they don't have much sympathy for politicians who don't make decisions because they don't want to face the public backlash, he added.
In Pratt's view, the steps taken by the Reagan administration in the past month to push the dollar down and turn up the heat on unfair trade practices were prompted essentially by politics, not a sudden conversion to the business lobby's viewpoint.
"Why did the president suddenly have a speech on trade and suddenly run a meeting on the dollar?" asked Pratt, during an interview at the Business Council meeting. "Not because we've been telling him for three or four years," he continued, "but because Congress suddenly has 300 trade bills in the hopper for things that were worse. I think it's absolutely clear that the administration felt it had to show greater leadership or things were going to get completely out of hand.
"Congress feels in many ways just like the business community. They're frustrated at the lack of action on what they see as a growing and critical problem. They're lashing out the only way they know how . . . . "
Pratt, Jefferson and many other corporate leaders believe the United States has entered a new, far more threatening environment affecting its economic and trade relationships. And what they want is not skillful political action but decisive leadership of the kind former special trade representative Robert Strauss called for in a speech earlier this year:
"The president must take the lead in forging a real debate and a resulting policy for this country that would lead us forward with a meaningful, effective, hard-hitting open trade posture for this country and indeed the free world," Strauss told a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee. "The United States must take the lead, and President Reagan today has the popularity and political muscle to pull this off politically."