Skip to content

Business’s Buyer’s Remorse

June 25, 2010

To listen to President Barack Obama, corporate America is a juggernaut, a force of calculating capitalists who ceaselessly plot against his national reforms. To listen to Ivan Seidenberg is to wish the president were even a little right.

Mr. Seidenberg, officially Verizon’s CEO, moonlights as chairman of the influential Business Roundtable, the “association of chief executive officers of leading U.S. companies.” That would be the same Business Roundtable that woke up this past month to discover the White House has been playing it for a patsy. It turns out that actively supporting a pro-tax, pro-regulation Democratic majority on issues like health care doesn’t really get you anything save more taxes and more regulation.

This has clearly come as a shock to the Business Roundtable, as Mr. Seidenberg made clear this week with his newsy and newfound criticism of the White House. The chairman revealed in a speech to the Economic Club of Washington that he’d become “somewhat troubled” by a “disconnect between Washington and the business community.” Here he and his fellow CEOs had “worked closely with policy makers”—they’d even pushed ObamaCare. And yet! “We see a host of laws, regulations and policies being enacted that impose a government prescription” on private actors. Truth was, Washington had created a downright “hostile environment” for job creation!

Agreed, said Roundtable President John Castellani, in an op-ed the same day. We stuck with that majority “through trying circumstances,” even “alienating many of our traditional colleagues,” and what did we get? They keep “vilifying” the private sector! And taxing it, and empowering unions, and ignoring trade. “The time has come for a new course,” declared Mr. Castellani, a mere 18 months after Democrats announced plans to tax companies, empower unions and ignore trade.

Just how the Roundtable came to this tardy rebellion is a tale worth recounting, as it holds lessons. It begins more than a year ago, when the White House announced it would further tax U.S. companies that operate overseas. Our multinationals already face higher taxes than companies in other countries, but President Obama also wanted an end to “tax breaks” for companies that “ship jobs overseas.”

Why announce such a big fight when the White House was already knee-deep in health care and energy? Ask Robert Reich, former Clinton labor secretary, who blogged the day of the announcement: “The President needs the cooperation of many big corporations if he’s going to get universal health insurance,” and this was a “bargaining chip.” “He might be willing to take [the tax hikes] off the table if big corporations lend him active support . . .”

The specific target was in fact the Business Roundtable, which represents the multinationals that would be most hurt by the tax hikes. The lobby ran for the bait. The plan would “cripple economic growth,” said Mr. Castellani upon the announcement, broadcasting that his group would do anything to prevent it.

The White House played it magnificently. It spent a year carefully fiddling with the tax proposal, even disappearing it for a while. The White House provided cheery access to its Business Roundtable partners, even as it whacked the Chamber of Commerce for daring to step out of line. All the while a hopeful Business Roundtable worked for ObamaCare, made pleasant comments about climate-change legislation, and stayed quiet on issues it might have otherwise condemned.

And guess what? Health care passed. Democrats moved on to new priorities, including another round of unemployment benefits and spending. And guess what, then? The House decided to help pay for it with $14 billion in . . . taxes on companies that operate overseas. The Business Roundtable reeled off a denunciation, which congressional Democrats ignored.

As did Obama budget director Peter Orszag, who last month met with the group and explained that Democrats needed the revenue, so that was, well, that. But thanks again for that health-care assist.

Thus this week’s revolt. The Business Roundtable took up Mr. Orszag’s invitation to send him a list of its other economic concerns. Mr. Seidenberg unveiled the 54-page report this week, with his speech, describing it as “literally hundreds of actions and decisions” that Washington has taken to hurt the economy.

Now that it thinks about it, the Business Roundtable is hard-pressed to name much the White House has done for growth. It is standing by as taxes increase on dividends. Its financial reform threatens derivatives and opens boardrooms to activists. It has failed to pass trade agreements. It still wants union “card check.” Its EPA is taking over energy markets. It will stifle the Internet. It has ignored tort reform. Immigration remains broken. Deficits are nuts. Even that health-care bill is creating “uncertainty.”

One can only guess how much shorter this list might be had the “leading U.S. companies” been fighting for free markets from the start. In the meantime the Roundtable can join that nonexclusive club of economic actors—health insurers, drug companies, Medicare doctors, utilities—that purchased a share of the Obama agenda and are now feeling buyer’s remorse.