Business elects to go own way

Instead of backing GOP in races, they will be selective

`I can't rely on the party'

Organizations want to put imprint on congressional races

February 27, 2000|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Some major business organizations are gearing up for this year's congressional elections a bit differently than in years past.

Instead of cutting checks to build Republican campaign funds, these industry groups are planning to mount campaigns in selected races. Just as important, they are seeking to put their imprint on those races.

"We want, as a collective effort, to make sure the candidates are talking about the right things -- about opening up trade opportunities, about a pro-business agenda," said Michael Baroody, senior vice president for the National Association of Manufacturers.

And big industry is taking that step, at least in part, because it does not fully trust its traditional GOP allies in Congress to highlight the issues it cares about most.

In Republican campaigns, "there has clearly been an increasing trend, from my perspective, to focus on social issues or personalities," said Kelly Johnston, executive vice president of the National Food Processors Association. "I can't rely on the party -- to communicate my message."

Caring little about the traditional conservative agenda on social issues such as gun control or abortion, the industry groups hope to help cement a working congressional majority, even crossing party lines, of lawmakers sympathetic to their concerns.

In arranging their campaigns to advocate smaller taxes, reduced regulation, liability limits and, above all, greater trade, business groups say they are catching up to the political activities of labor unions, trial lawyers and environmental groups.

During the 1998 election cycle, the AFL-CIO spent nearly $2.8 million in advertising and get-out-the-vote initiatives to promote Democratic candidates, according to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign spending.

In perhaps the best example of industry's planned counterpunch, Thomas Donahue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is aggressively pursuing a "pro-growth" agenda, promising a $7 million advertising campaign in 66 of the 435 congressional districts this year. Many, though not all, of those districts are among the 35 to 40 tight races that are considered likely to determine control of the House. None is in Maryland.

While some conservative Democrats such as Rep. Cal Dooley of California are likely to garner support, the chamber's efforts -- including television ads -- are far more likely to aid Republicans.

The chamber is not expected to make any explicit endorsements in the races, which allows the ads to be paid for with unregulated and undisclosed "soft money" contributions.

And, as long there is no coordination with the parties or candidates, independent ad campaigns such those envisioned by the chamber are not subject to federal limits or regulation.

Its political action committee intends to spend $2 million of the $7 million to solicit money from its members, corporate officers and other entrepreneurs. The group, the world's largest federation of businesses and industry groups, counts 3 million companies and 850 associations as members.

"In doing the post-mortems on [elections in] '96 and '98, I think the business community by and large decided to do this for ourselves," said Bill Miller, director of the political action committee for the Chamber of Commerce.

Democrats suggest another motivation. "The business community is recognizing that the Democrats are on the verge of taking back the House," said John Del Cecato, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which spends money on behalf of the party's House candidates. "They're not interested in blindly doing the bidding of the Republican Party."

While business lobbyists still work closely with GOP leaders, some tensions over strategy have surfaced. In late 1998, at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich poured millions of dollars into an ad campaign in 30 congressional districts and scolded President Clinton and Democrats for breaking "trust" with the American people. The Republicans lost five House seats that year.

Taken with the loss of 19 House seats in 1996, the disappointments of 1998 suggest that momentum might be shifting away from congressional Republicans -- along with the opportunity to rewrite the rules governing American commerce. (The Senate, in which Republicans hold a 10-seat majority, is seen as much more likely to stay in the hands of the GOP.)

Meanwhile, under new Speaker Dennis Hastert, the House Republican leadership says it is likely to offer some increase in the minimum wage along with an HMO reform bill -- traditionally Democratic priorities that repel many business groups.

"We need to become a far greater player in determining our own fate than we have in the past," said Gregory S. Casey, executive director of the Business-Industry Political Action Committee (BiPAC), which includes hundreds of companies and trade groups. "We do not want to become a wholly owned subsidiary of either party."

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