The Business Lobby Doesn’t Need Kevin McCarthy


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

The answer: Not much.

Gridlock, not Kevin McCarthy, will reign supreme for 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 underway.

Legislation on the core issues that have united corporate America and the Republican establishment for decades, from tax cuts to deregulation, is not in the cards. This might not be a bad thing, as it might give companies some room as they endure blows from both the populist left and the populist right.

McCarthy, for example, has waged a public battle with the chamber and its CEO, Suzanne Clark. McCarthy has pushed 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 formerly allied with the Republican Party endorsed 23 Democratic incumbents.

Separately, House Republicans are threatening financial firms with subpoena power and warning of hearings on their environmental, social and governance (ESG) practices. They also didn’t like it when business leaders spoke out against election deniers.

So what’s a conventional Chamber of Commerce business type to do? The advice from those who know Washington: Keep your head down and fasten your seat belt.

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

Stay out of the fray, he advised. There is no way that businesses can skillfully navigate the populist wings of both parties.

Even so, there will be times when they want or need to make their views known on core appropriations bills and other proposed legislation, even if the latter doesn’t stand much of a chance. In these moments, who can they turn to?

“I’m not concerned that the business community will have a hard time getting their views across to Republican members of Congress,” says Charles Dent, a former Republican member of Congress who is now executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Congressional Program. Among the likely powerful committee chairs who will be willing to listen are Cathy McMorris Rodgers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Vern Buchanan on Ways and Means, Kay Granger on Appropriations and Michael McCaul on Foreign Affairs.

Republican members need to remember that the business community is deeply concerned about a stable political environment, Dent says. Republicans may feel the chamber owes them loyalty to carry their water on tax, 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 free and fair elections is not good for business, he says.

On the other hand, 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 denialists and Republican lawmakers who voted against certifying President Joe Biden’s 2020 victory, noting specifically which business interests they said they would reevaluate or they would pause their political contributions to those lawmakers. About 220 companies made that pledge, but only 67 are still keeping it, according to Robert Maguire, the group’s director of research.

The chamber never made that promise, and Republican beneficiaries of its largesse this year include Rep. Ted Budd, who benefited from $500,000 in advertising paid for by the chamber and won his Senate race in Carolina Nord, and Representative Steve Chabot of Ohio, who the chamber spent $230,000 on advertising and who ended up losing.

Maguire notes that the chamber’s political spending has fallen significantly over the past 10 years. He spent $35 million in the 2014 election cycle; $10.9 million in 2018; and just $1.8 billion in 2022. The chamber notes that these figures only reflect spending on cable or broadcast television advertising in the weeks leading up to the election and do not include spending on digital advertising. He also notes that he gave $3 million to a political action committee in support of 2022 Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mehmet Oz.

The chamber also gave money directly to at least 16 Republican members this year who voted not to certify in the 2020 election. Among those donations: $5,000 to one Kevin McCarthy of California.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Are Republicans and Big Business Heading for a Breakup?: David A. Hopkins

• Anti-Woke Republicans Don’t Make Sense on Climate: Liam Denning

• Big business can no longer trust Republicans: Michael Strain

(Corrects the last paragraph to note that the chamber gave money to 16 members of Congress who voted not to certify the 2020 election. Also updates the 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 columnist for Bloomberg Opinion who was previously Washington correspondent for CBS News and White House correspondent for Bloomberg News and Bloomberg Television.

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