Analysis | The Business Lobby Doesn’t Need Kevin McCarthy

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

The answer: Not very 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 contest already under way.

Legislation on the core issues that have united corporate America and the Republican establishment for decades — from tax cuts to deregulation — isn’t in the cards. That might not be a bad thing, as it could give business some space while it endures blows from both the populist left and the populist right.

McCarthy, for example, has been waging a public battle with the chamber and its CEO, Suzanne Clark. McCarthy has pressed 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 that was once joined at the hip with the Republican Party endorsed 23 Democratic incumbents.

Separately, House Republicans are threatening financial firms with their subpoena power and warning of hearings over their environmental, social and governance (ESG) practices. They also disliked it when corporate leaders spoke out against election deniers.

So what’s a mainstream, Chamber-of-Commerce business type to do? The advice from those who know Washington: Keep your heads down and buckle up.

Former House Speaker Paul Ryan, who is now vice chairman of Teneo, a CEO advisory firm, spoke to a group of business leaders before the election. He predicted that Republicans would take control of the House and Democrats would retain the Senate, an attendee told me, and talked about the conflicting pressures faced by corporations on such issues as ESG, diversity and abortion.

 Stay out of the fray, he advised. There’s no way for businesses to adroitly navigate the populist wings of both parties.

Still, there will come moments when they want or need to make their views known on basic appropriations bills and other proposed legislation, even if the latter doesn’t stand much of a chance. At such times, who can they turn to?

“I don’t have any concern that the business community will have a difficult time conveying their points of view to Republican members of Congress,” says Charles Dent, a former Republican member of Congress and now executive director of the Aspen Institute Congressional Program. Likely chairs of powerful committees who will be willing to listen include Cathy McMorris Rodgers at the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Vern Buchanan at Ways and Means, Kay Granger at Appropriations and Michael McCaul at Foreign Affairs.

Republican members need to remember that the business community is deeply concerned about a stable political environment, says Dent. Republicans may feel the chamber owes them loyalty for carrying its water on taxes, trade, labor and regulatory issues. But they should also realize that threatening to default on the debt, pushing for government shutdowns or voting to decertify a free and fair election is not good for business, he says.

On the flip side, 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 the Republican lawmakers who voted against certifying President Joe Biden’s 2020 win — specifically noting which business interests said they would re-evaluate or pause their political contributions to such lawmakers. Some 220 companies made that promise, but only 67 are still keeping it, according to Robert Maguire, the group’s research director.

The chamber never made such a promise, and Republican beneficiaries of its largesse this year include Representative Ted Budd, who benefited from $500,000 of advertising paid for by the chamber and won his Senate race in North Carolina, and Representative Steve Chabot of Ohio, on 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 last 10 years. It 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 reflect only spending on cable or broadcast TV advertising  in the weeks before an election and do not include spending on digital advertising. It also notes that it donated $3 million to a political-action committee in support of Republican US Senate candidate Mehmet Oz in 2022.

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 Breakup?: David A. Hopkins

• Anti-Woke Republicans Aren’t Making Sense on Climate: Liam Denning

• Big Business Can’t Rely on Republicans Anymore: Michael Strain

(Corrects last paragraph to note that the chamber gave money to 16 members of Congress who voted not to certify the 2020 election. Also updates 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 Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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

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