The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hot-button issues from voting rights to tax hikes redraw the lines in corporate America

The nation’s top CEOs are pushing back against President Biden’s plan to raise the corporate tax rate, a move they say would make U.S. companies less competitive and hurt workers

President Biden is facing opposition from corporations over how he plans to pay for his infrastructure proposal. (Leigh Vogel/UPI/Bloomberg News)

The nation’s top business leaders are pushing back against President Biden’s plans to raise corporate taxes to pay for his infrastructure plan, as corporate America wades further into a growing number of hot-button policies that put it at odds, by turns, with lawmakers and stakeholders, and test the development of its public voice.

Since the start of the year, U.S. corporations have halted donations to Republican lawmakers who opposed certification of the presidential election, expressed their desire for infrastructure investment while opposing corporate tax hikes to pay for it and spoken out against controversial state voting laws proposed by Republicans. Now, the Business Roundtable, a lobbying group that represents the chief executives of more than 220 large companies, plans to launch a digital and radio ad campaign against Biden’s proposal to raise the corporate tax rate from 21 to 28 percent.

The effect is something of split screen for those observing America’s largest corporations, which are being pulled off the sidelines and into the social and political melee as employees and the public demand it.

“Since the 1950s, people have associated the GOP and big business. It doesn’t work anymore,” said Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a professor at Yale University’s School of Management who helped organize a call over the weekend in which more than 100 corporate leaders discussed ways to show they opposed state voting bills.

Companies, facing new expectations, struggle with pressure to take stand on Georgia voting bill

Yet corporate responses, so far, have varied in how many concrete actions firms have taken amid a shifting political landscape that could disrupt long-held alliances.

With the exception of taxes and infrastructure, Sonnenfeld said, corporations are increasingly at odds with today’s Republican Party when it comes to issues such as the environment, gun safety, immigration and now voting rights. “They don’t have a political home. They have to be a lot more pragmatic. They have to be a lot more expedient.”

On Monday, the Business Roundtable published a survey showing that 75 percent of the 178 members queried said a tax hike would negatively affect their investments in research and development. The group — comprising CEOs across the airline, manufacturing, tech, retail, financial and other sectors — contends in a new multimillion-dollar ad campaign that the bigger tax liability would stymie growth and make their companies less competitive, Bloomberg News reported.

“We’re not out of the woods on Covid-19, but we’re getting there,” the 30-second radio spot will say, according to a script preview seen by The Washington Post. “And as we emerge, we need an economy that grows and creates opportunity. That requires a reliable, consistent and competitive tax code for America’s businesses.”

Biden has proposed raising the corporate tax rate, among other changes, to pay for a $2 trillion plan to rebuild the nation’s roads, bridges and other infrastructure. That would partially reverse the corporate tax cut implemented during the Trump administration in 2017; the rate had been slashed from 35 percent after intense lobbying by big business.

“The proposed tax increases on job creators would slow America’s recovery and hurt workers,” Joshua Bolten, chief executive of the Business Roundtable, said in a statement.

Steve Rosenthal, a senior fellow at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, said shareholders have reaped huge benefits from the 2017 tax cut. To ask shareholders to give some of that windfall back is a “modest request,” he said. “Nobody likes to pay increased taxes, but these corporations can afford to do so. There are record profits and shareholders have been enjoying record runs in their stock prices.”

HP, Dow, Under Armour among nearly 200 companies speaking out against voting law changes in Texas, other states

Over the weekend, more than 100 corporate executives from major retailers, airlines and manufacturers gathered online to discuss further actions they might take against restrictive state voting bills, including halting donations to politicians who support them or delaying investments in states that pass these measures, The Post reported.

Yet no final decisions about next steps were made by the group, at least as of Monday afternoon, and many corporate leaders have expressed their opposition to the bills without yet setting financial consequences. The Georgia bill did prompt actor Will Smith and director Antoine Fuqua to announce Monday they would pull the filming of their upcoming movie “Emancipation” from the state. Directed by Fuqua and produced by Smith’s media company Westbrook Inc. for Apple Studios, the film will now be shot in Louisiana.

One week after it was signed into law, Georgia's Republican-led voting overhaul is facing backlash from a growing number of voting rights advocates. (Video: Mahlia Posey/The Washington Post)

“We cannot in good conscience provide economic support to a government that enacts regressive voting laws that are designed to restrict voter access,” Fuqua and Smith said in a joint statement. “The new Georgia voting laws are reminiscent of voting impediments that were passed at the end of Reconstruction to prevent many Americans from voting.” Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The executives’ weekend call came after multiple statements by individual corporations or groups of executives — including one from 72 Black executives and another signed by nearly 200 CEOs — came out in opposition to the voting bills in recent weeks. But after Georgia passed its law, businesses were initially called out by critics for being slow to respond and not doing enough to prevent the measure’s passage, which critics say disproportionately affects access to the polls for voters of color.

Corporations’ reticence to take quick financial measures in opposition to the voting laws are a sign of how social issues such as voting rights continue to be both a new — and uncomfortable — issue for corporate leaders, said Ronnie Chatterji, a professor at Duke University’s business school who studies corporate activism on social and political issues.

“The details of how people vote probably wouldn’t even have risen to the level of the C-suite if it hadn’t been for the 2020 election and the claim that there was voter fraud,” Chatterji said. Compared with corporate taxes, which CEOs have lobbied against for years, “this is a very new issue for CEOs.”

He points to the recent public endorsement from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) of a unionization effort by Amazon employees in Alabama as a sign that traditional alliances between business and political parties are getting scrambled.

“It’s going to be a lot more complex than it was in an earlier era when there was a solid middle that business could rely on,” Chatterji said. “The reason you see CEOs and companies kind of taking different positions, straddling across the political spectrum, is because we’re very polarized. The issues that animate Democrats and Republicans — business doesn’t fit neatly into one camp or the other.”

Corporations are being driven to speak out on more social issues by their workers, Chatterji said, especially younger ones who expect their employers to be vocal about issues with which they identify. While employees and some Americans may see executives as a credible actors to weigh in on these issues, he warns that could change over time as business leaders get more outspoken on cultural issues.

“As business gets more political, that will be tested,” Chatterji said.

Organizers who work with corporations on voting issues say their ramped-up involvement in the 2020 election — companies gave workers time off to vote, ran education campaigns about state voting law changes and even coordinated efforts to drive people or food to the polls — may have also prompted some to get involved in opposing state voting restrictions.

“You then turn the page to 2021, and all of a sudden this work they did in 2020 was under attack,” said Ashley Spillane, president of voter-engagement strategy firm Impactual and founder of the Civic Responsibility Project. She said options for concrete action under consideration that go beyond statements include direct lobbying of lawmakers; support for litigation efforts, such as joining amicus briefs; donating to voting rights organizations; or potentially advertising in support of voting rights protections proposed at the federal level.

“What we saw in 2020 is companies internalized the responsibility they have to our democracy,” Spillane said. “I think they do face pressure to stand up.”

Hannah Denham contributed to this report.