The Business Lobby doesn’t need Kevin McCarthy

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The American Chamber of Commerce, the largest and most influential business lobby in Washington, can’t even get a meeting with the Republican who is expected to be the next speaker of the House. This is certainly unusual, but the more immediate question is how this strained relationship will affect the prospects for legislation in 2023.

Answer: Not much.

Gridlock, not Kevin McCarthy, will reign supreme over the next two years, with Republicans in control of the House, Democrats running the Senate, President Joe Biden in the White House, and a presidential race already underway.

Legislation on the core issues that have united corporate America and the Republican establishment for decades — from tax cuts to deregulation — is not in the cards. This may not be a bad thing, as it may give business some leeway while enduring blows from both the populist left and the populist right.

McCarthy, for example, has waged a public battle with the chamber and its CEO, Suzanne Clark. McCarthy has pressured the chamber to fire Clark, the group’s first female CEO. Conservative Republicans accuse the chamber of focusing on progressive causes over business interests. In 2020, the business lobby, which was once aligned with the Republican Party, endorsed 23 Democratic officeholders.

Separately, House Republicans are threatening financial firms with their subpoena power and warning of hearings on their environmental, social and governance (ESG) practices. They also didn’t like it when corporate leaders spoke out against election deniers.

So what’s a regular, Chamber of Commerce type of business to do? Advice from those who know Washington: Keep your head down and hold it high.

Former House Speaker Paul Ryan, who is now vice president of Teneo, a CEO consulting firm, spoke to a group of business leaders before the election. He predicted Republicans would take control of the House and Democrats would keep the Senate, one attendee told me, and spoke to the conflicting pressures corporations face on issues such as ESG, diversity and abortion.

Stay out of the fray, he advised. There is no way businesses can skillfully navigate the populist wings of both parties.

However, there will be times when they want or need to make their views known on basic appropriations bills and other proposed legislation, even if the latter has little chance. At such times, who can they turn to?

“I have no concern that the business community will have a hard time getting their views across to Republican members of Congress,” says Charles Dent, a former Republican member of Congress and now executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Congressional Program. Potential chairmen of powerful committees who will be willing to listen include Cathy McMorris Rodgers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Vern Buchanan on Ways and Means, Kay Granger on Appropriations and Michael McCaul on Foreign Affairs.

Republican members should remember that the business community is deeply concerned about a stable political environment, Dent says. Republicans may feel that the chamber owes them allegiance for holding its water on tax, trade, labor and regulatory issues. But they also need to understand that threatening to default on the debt, pushing for a government shutdown or voting to certify free and fair elections is not good for business, he says.

On the other hand, it’s not like the chamber and other business groups have completely abandoned the Republican Party.

Citizens for Responsible Ethics in Washington tracks corporate donations to election deniers and Republican lawmakers who voted against certifying President Joe Biden’s 2020 victory — noting specifically which business interests said they would reconsider or freeze their contributions policy for such legislators. About 220 companies made that promise, but only 67 are still keeping it, according to Robert Maguire, the group’s director of research.

The chamber never made such a promise, and Republican recipients of its largesse this year include Representative Ted Budd, who benefited from $500,000 in advertising paid for by the chamber and won his Senate race in North Carolina, and Representative Steve Chabot of Ohio, for whom the chamber spent $230,000 in advertising and who ended up losing.

Maguire notes that the chamber’s political spending has dropped significantly over the past 10 years. She spent $35 million in the 2014 election cycle; $10.9 million in 2018; and just $1.8 million in 2022. The Chamber notes that these figures only reflect spending on cable or broadcast television advertising in the weeks leading up to the election and do not include spending on digital advertising. He also notes that he donated $3 million to a political action committee in support of 2022 Republican US Senate candidate Mehmet Oz.

The chamber also gave money directly to at least 16 Republican members this year who voted not to certify the 2020 election. Among those donations: $5,000 to one Kevin McCarthy of California.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Are Republicans and big business headed for a split?: David A. Hopkins

• Anti-Woke Republicans Don’t Make Sense of Climate: Liam Denning

• Big business can no longer rely on Republicans: Michael Strain

(Corrects the last paragraph to note that the chamber gave money to the 16 members of Congress who voted not to certify the 2020 election. Also updates the penultimate paragraph to include details of other political spending by the chamber.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Julianna Goldman is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist who was previously the Washington-based correspondent for CBS News and the White House correspondent for Bloomberg News and Bloomberg Television.

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