As lifelong Democrats who have worked both on Capitol Hill and in the private sector, we are deeply concerned about the strained relationship between congressional Democrats and the business community. Today, it isn’t a stretch to say that many Democrats in Congress, particularly the most progressive, view American corporations as political adversaries — rather than national assets. The biggest losers in this adversarial relationship are working Americans who need their government to work with industry to spur economic growth.
We’re not saying there isn’t any cooperation between congressional Democrats and businesses. Many conservative Blue Dogs have good relationships, as do many members with large employers from their districts or states. Yet, overall, there is a visceral belief by Democrats that big business needs to be reined in and that many of this country’s problems are associated with corporate America, rather than a few bad actors across many business sectors.
The fact that many meetings between business lobbyists and White House staffers often take place at coffee shops around 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., so that lobbyists don’t have to be recorded in the visitors log for public consumption, sums it up nicely.
In the hope that Democrats on Capitol Hill and the business community will begin working more closely together, we recommend three things that can be done to rebuild the party’s relationship with business. These ideas do not require getting legislation passed in an increasingly dysfunctional Congress.
1. Thaw the relationship with big business. Lift the lobbyist ban at the Obama White House and the administration. The current White House policy sends a very clear message that businesses and the nation have divergent interests.
In the short term, the lobbyist ban reduces the influence of Democratic lobbyists who truly understand how big business works and who earnestly want to serve their country in the executive branch. In both the long term and the short term, it also reduces the number of qualified and experienced Democratic lobbyists in Washington, further increasing the divide between K Street, congressional Democrats and the White House.
2. Approve the Keystone XL pipeline. There is no doubt it would create thousands of jobs — even if many of them are temporary. But blocking it is a symbolic gesture against the oil industry and has little do with reducing this nation’s addiction to oil and gas consumption. After all, if we don’t get the oil from North America, it just means we have to get it from somewhere else.
Approving the Keystone pipeline also sends a clear message to the American people that the president and Congress are serious about job creation and are even willing to take on parts of their own party to do so. While it wouldn’t be easy, congressional Democrats and the White House should be buoyed by the thousands of American families whose lives would be dramatically improved through employment.
3. Improve rhetoric about the role of business in this country. During the last campaign, speeches by the president and then-candidate Elizabeth Warren were taken out of context, particularly the line by the president: “you didn’t build that.” Republicans misleadingly said the phrase implied that the government built their businesses. But even if you took them at face value, it insinuates that businesses in this country should be thankful for government and Washington, D.C.
This sets the wrong tone. Yes, government regulation helps level the business playing field and facilitates honest competition while ensuring consumer protection and safety. And, yes, the government does build the transportation infrastructure, educates future employees and protects our national interests abroad. But, it’s businesses putting money into the federal coffers that allows the government to function. Not vice versa.
Over the past several years, everything has become more polarized in Washington, and nearly every special interest has been forced to align itself with one party or the other — and business groups are no different. Congressional Democrats can go along with that status quo, but, ultimately, we believe that is bad for both the party and, more importantly, the nation. If Democrats on Capitol Hill and in the White House want to lead over a successful economic recovery, they simply must find ways to work more closely with the employers.
Gary Meltz and Steven Schlein are former Capitol Hill staffers who serve as senior vice presidents at Dezenhall Resources.