Business groups are facing a new challenge as they look to advance their agendas in an increasingly polarized Washington and ahead of a contentious presidential election.
K Street had expectations for some bipartisan actions in 2020, but those hopes are on hold after the feud between President Trump and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) took a turn for the worse at the State of the Union address. Now businesses and their lobbyists are worried about being drawn into Washington’s heated political crossfire.
“No matter who is in the White House, companies don’t want to be too political,” said Sam Geduldig, partner at CGCN Group. “We saw the same with Obama and Bush ... most businesses don’t want to be viewed as choosing sides or playing politics.”
That’s likely to prove even more difficult this year. Businesses already have a complicated relationship with Trump over his trade wars and with Democrats, whose presidential candidates are targeting many industries.
One Republican lobbyist said the fresh turmoil in Washington is unnerving businesses.
“Any time you have a high-profile event in Washington there is always a collective panic for businesses large and small about what’s next in the short- and long-term and how it will affect everyone’s bottom line,” the lobbyist said.
“The panic should be short-lived,” the lobbyist added. “Less than 24 hours after the president was acquitted, both [Senate Majority] Leader [Mitch] McConnell and Speaker Pelosi said all hope is not lost for legislating this year. There are hurt feelings and bruised egos right now, but this will pass and we will all find our footing again.”
Others are not so sure and warn that business groups could get dragged into the partisan mire, threatening their priorities.
“President Trump keeps score even more so than Bush and Obama did, so it is increasingly difficult for business to avoid being trapped in the political process,” said Geduldig.
James Maloney, managing partner of Tiger Hill Partners, said stakeholders today expect CEOs to publicly “take a stance and ... [be] visible on policy issues that align with their company objectives.”
On one side, Trump is making the economy and jobs a centerpiece of his reelection bid, and there is pressure from the administration for business to help highlight those achievements. Companies must walk a fine line between voicing their concerns about Trump’s policies and not undercutting his economic message.
Trump has regularly taken to Twitter to rip companies over their practices, from Boeing over the cost of Air Force One to Pfizer over drug prices and Apple over its encryption policies. The president has also wooed those business leaders to tout his policies, surrounding himself with top CEOs when he announced an initial trade deal with China earlier last month.
The Republican lobbyist said there was pressure for executives to attend the announcement. Among those at the White House were the CEOs of Blackstone, Boeing, UPS, Visa and MasterCard.
“He expected them to be there,” the lobbyist said.
Some business executives have worked to stay on good terms with the administration.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg quietly had dinner with the president in November, and Trump sat down with Apple CEO Tim Cook and other corporate leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January.
“What our clients like to do is privately lobby and publicly get credit for being nonpartisan, no matter who is president. They want the benefits of being good lobbyists without the downside of supporting either political party,” the Republican lobbyist said.
But those meetings also opened those executives up to criticism from Democrats, who say businesses are cozying up to Trump. Executives are also taking pains to avoid alienating Democratic congressional leaders.
In a statement after last week’s State of the Union, the Business Roundtable (BRT) said it was focused on working with both sides.
“Business Roundtable CEOs are committed to working with the Administration and Congress on inclusive policies to strengthen the American workforce, invest in science and technology, increase American competitiveness, and remove unnecessary roadblocks to innovation,” JPMorgan Chase CEO and BRT Chairman Jamie Dimon said in a statement.
Business groups and lobbyists told The Hill last month they expected a busy year, rejecting the conventional notion that little gets done in an election year. With partisan tempers flaring in Washington, it’s unclear if that will bear out.
“I am always hopeful for bipartisanship, but with impeachment still fresh, and the Democrat nomination in full swing, I don’t think anyone is holding their breath,” said Stacey Hutchinson, a principal at Monument Advocacy. “However, I am telling my clients that actions matter and the administration is still working on a lot of good policies,” she added, citing infrastructure and trade.
Hunter Bates, co-head of Akin Gump’s public law and policy practice, also said there was room for work.
“Less than two months ago — while the House was impeaching President Trump — the administration worked with Congress to approve USMCA, fund the federal government and pass one of the most consequential legislative packages that we have seen in years, including critical retirement legislation and repeal of ObamaCare taxes,” he said, referring to the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.
One former White House aide predicted that with impeachment behind him, Trump and Congress would eventually move on.
“With impeachment over, Congress can focus on deadlines they face on [the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act], health care and infrastructure — all bipartisan opportunities,” said Jonathan Slemrod, a partner at Harbinger Strategies, and formerly associate director of legislative affairs at the Office of Management and Budget under director Mick Mulvaney.
“President Trump ... is riding high with impeachment over, economic growth, and high poll numbers, and I see no reason he can’t balance reelection with must-do items in Congress,” he added.
Regardless of how the year shakes out, many on K Street said businesses could not wait out the latest political storm.
“That ... comes with the cost of critical missed opportunities to tell your story and potentially influence the direction of the next markup, the next rulemaking, and the larger debates amongst policymakers that won’t wait till November,” said Dave Oxner, managing director of Cogent Strategies.
“Smart business leaders are putting strategies in place to get their policy priorities included,” added Helen Tolar, a principal at Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Thomas.