The debate over the fiscal cliff has turned the spotlight not just on the nation’s top CEOs but on the influential trade group that represents them, the Business Roundtable.
Having essentially sat out the recent elections, the Roundtable is mounting a six-figure lobbying campaign to warn Congress and the Obama administration about the perils of the automatic spending cuts and tax increases that will kick in if they don’t reach a deficit reduction deal. The campaign comes amid a hiring spree at the association, led by former Michigan Gov. John Engler, aimed at boosting the group’s Beltway profile.
The suddenly central role that Roundtable CEOs are playing in the debate has irked some business leaders representing small businesses, who complain that they are being shut out. But the Business Roundtable’s deliberately nonpartisan strategy — the group doesn’t even run a political action committee or score key votes — is turning out to be tailor-made for the fiscal cliff negotiations, which hinge on compromise. President Barack Obama is set to meet with congressional leaders Friday at the White House.
“We don’t score members of Congress; we don’t get involved in these big campaign expenditures,” said Roundtable Senior Vice President Bill Miller, who joined the group in June after a dozen years at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “And that gives these CEOs the opportunity to play in the middle. And I think that’s important.”
The Roundtable has spent $9.4 million on lobbying this year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, ranking it second among Washington business associations, but still far behind the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, whose lobbying budget approached $96 million, according to the CRP. But Engler’s group is in the process of beefing up its lobbying, communications and policy shops. Miller is one of several high-profile new hires in recent months, including former Capitol Hill and GOP political aide Jessica Boulanger as vice president of communications, and more are on the way.
All 12 of the CEOs who met with Obama Wednesday at the White House are Roundtable members, half of them members of the group’s executive committee. They included the top executives of major companies including Aetna Inc., Dow Chemical Co., General Electric Co., and Procter & Gamble Co.
In the Roundtable’s “It’s Time to Act” campaign, which features web videos and print and radio ads, several of the CEOs warn that falling off the fiscal cliff would stall economic growth, boost unemployment and hurt the nation’s credit rating. Some, including Honeywell International Inc. Chairman and CEO David Cote, are also involved in the bipartisan Fix the Debt campaign, a $40 million organization that has launched its own ads urging Congress to act.
The role of the CEOs, who in some cases have suggested that a final deal may have to include tax increases, has sparked criticism from some quarters. Dan Danner, president and CEO of the National Federation of Independent Business, called Obama’s meeting with the executives “an insult to the business owners who create two-thirds of net new jobs.”