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Minding Everybody's Business

Corporate America Goes to Washington

By Andrew P. Buchsbaum

To rearrange the old adage, the business of American business is government.

The increasing influence of big business in America is having an effect on Congress, the administration, and the general public. Political advertising, political campaign contributions, and lobbying expenditures from the business sector--especially from the largest corporations--are growing at an exponential rate. In 1978, business political action committees raised over $50 million, a fivefold increase from their less than $10 million campaign chest in 1976.

As more and more business dollars flow into politics, more and more chief executive officers (CEOs)--company presidents or chairmen of the boards--from the biggest corporations are becoming personally involved in all levels of government. No longer content to leave the dirty business of lobbying to a vice president for legislative affairs, modern CEOs join associations like the Business Roundtable, which requires them to lobby personally Congress and the White House. Or they simply stalk the halls of Congress on their own.

From the corporate aeries in New York, the view of federal government is different than the perspective from the bureaucratic niches in Washington or the lecture halls of Harvard. After digesting James Q. Wilson's political models in Gov. 30, and then spending an exhilarating, disillusioning and often perplexing summer in Washington, I sought one last perspective on business--that of the giant corporation.

The day is gray and wet, adding a touch of gloom to the usual anxiety in the New York air. High atop the American Telephone and Telegraph (AT & T) building, chairman of the board John deButts has a commanding view of the World Trade Centers. The rest of the building, as far as I can tell from the lobby and the hallways, seems to be a cross between a medieval castle and the Pentagon. The lobby is crowded with simple Roman columns, which part to reveal a statue set into the marble wall. It is the figure of a man with one arm outstretched, one cocked at the elbow; the head thrown to the side completes the modified Christ-image. Under each arm blazes an inscription, one reading IN PEACE AND WAR, the other SERVICE TO THE NATION. In contrast to the deadening solemnity of the lobby, the halls are brightly colored passageways strewn with security devices and guards.

DeButts is a large man with a relaxed, almost weary manner that reduces his tendency to lecture during the interview. He is clearly comfortable with the responsibilities of running AT&T, responsibilities that he believes extend to maintaining close personal contact with elected officials in Washington.

"Every businessman is finding he is spending more time with the federal government," deButts says, "and it's getting worse." He quickly amends this negative comment by adding, "Which is good, I think it's fine that there is a much closer relationship between the business community and the government."

Between meetings with Congressmen, administration officials, and the various business groups to which he belongs, deButts estimates that he spends 30 per cent of his time on federal issues. At least two business groups--the Business Roundtable and the Business Council (both collections of select members of the Fortune 1000, a list of the largest companies in the nation)--require deButts and his fellow CEOs to remain personally involved in the political process.

"For years, they left it up to their public relations directors," deButts explains. "But the government has such a big hand in the affairs of business today, if the CEO doesn't get involved he's in real trouble. If he doesn't give them the facts, no one will."

The CEO has a natural advantage in gaining access to Congressmen. Not many Congressmen can afford to turn away the head of a $50 billion corporation. In fact, many members of Congress welcome the CEOs, soaking up the glamour associated with extreme wealth. In the 95th Congress, Senator Howard O. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) asked deButts to lunch to discuss public governance of the corporation, while Senator Jacob Javits (R-N.Y.) contacted deButts to solicit the business community's help on urban problems.

CEOs find it a bit more difficult to contact Carter, although they have had numerous meetings with his staff. DeButts recalls, "He used to tell us in the meeting he expected the only contacts the White House would have with the business community would be through Secretaries Kreps and Blumenthal. And we finally told him, 'That's fine, Mr. President, but we have to talk to you. If you want something from us you don't talk to some executive vice president. You ask for the CEO. Well, we want the same thing--to talk to the CEO.'"

"It took me a year to get him to talk to the Business Council," deButts adds. "He came. He didn't want to, but he did."

"We don't have any trouble getting to Carter now. Or Fritz Mondale. He's very easy to get to. I talk to Fritz Mondale fairly often," deButts says.

Once close relations were established with the Carter administration, CEOs found they could often do favors for the White House. Early in 1978, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance called to elicit business pressure on Congress for the Panama Canal treaty, also during the 95th Congress another Cabinet-level official came to a Business Council meeting to request pressure in the sale of F-15 fighter planes to Saudi Arabia.

Because much of the CEO's activity falls outside his specific area of expertise, deButts attributes the value of a business executive as a government adviser to his general expertise.. The government is "going to listen because these people (the CEOs) obviously have some sense or they wouldn't be where they were. They control a large segment of the economy."

On a more general level, deButts thinks CEOs are useful because of their moderation. "We don't just oppose everything," he says. "We attempt to find ways to negotiate a position both sides can live with." Through the Business Roundtable, the CEOs worked out the administration's current national health plan which makes the plan's implementation dependent on the progress of the economy. DeButts also mentions the consumer protection bill, and the labor law reform act as areas that the CEOs tried to modify. In both of the latter, however, their efforts at moderation failed, and the business community at large opposed the compromise legislation.

The interview comes to an abrupt end, and I find my way unescorted back through the carpeted corridors and marble halls, out onto the street. I am perplexed. How can deButts believe that his control over a single multibillion dollar corporation justifies his having political power rivaling that of most elected officals in areas in which he has no expertise? After three years at Harvard and a summer in Washington, I had expected the worst from our government, so it was no surprise that corporate dollars buy political power. But I hardly believe the corporate attitude that such practices are natural and right, that the corporate chiefs are acting out of a sense of nobless oblige.

My next stop is a modern skyscraper across from Rockefeller Center. The 15th floor of the building houses the chairman of the Board of NL Industries, Ray Adam. In contrast to the massive security at the AT&T building, a single receptionist guards a wide hallway leading to the plush, carpeted depths of the office. Once I get inside, Adam immediately arrives to greet me, relaxed and smiling. Where deButts lectures, Adam chats; he calls me by my first name repeatedly, and in spite of myself, I am disarmed.

Business is taking a more direct approach in Washington, Adam begins. "I think businessmen have decided they haven't been winning much staying back in their cave," he says. "And they can't send the corporals and the sargents and the captains to the field all the time; the general has to appear as well."

CEOs have always been reluctant to get personally involved in Washington, he continues because they prefer the security of their own fiefdoms in New York, complete with well-established procedures, well-connected friends and absolute control over most people they deal with every day.

The awkwardness of the CEO in the seat of government soon wears off, however. "When you become familiar with the process, you become willing to go down to Washington increasingly more," Adam says. "it's a confidence that's sort of self-feeding...I see a lot more enthusiasm within the organization (the Business Roundtable) in the last two years than I saw previously."

In fact, Adam continues, "the majority leader in the House has organized sessions where the Business Roundtable comes down and sits with the party leadership to discuss legislation, present and upcoming." These meetings have "occurred under Tip O'Neill's urgings," he adds.

Adam began working in Washington as the chairman of the Business Roundtable's energy task force after Carter announced his conservation-oriented energy policy. "I found myself swept into an involvement which was intense and time consuming," he says. That involvement included lobbying Congressmen, negotiating with administration officials, and coordinating the efforts of the business community.

Now, after working for nearly a year with the Roundtable staff and his own corporation's Washington representatives, Adam has once more turned the focus of his efforts to managing his corporation from his office in New York. But his time is tied up more with politics now than before he went to Washington. "I find myself in New York meeting more and more people in government trying to obtain the views of business," he says.

Adam ends the interview warmly, inviting me to call or visit his office again if I can think of any other questions. The receptionist smiles as I leave, and I head across the street for my last interview. The gloom in the air has coalesced into fat, grimy raindrops, which do not help my already-dishelved appearance. Happily, Rockefeller Center is warm and dry, and after only half an hour lost in the tunnels. I manage to find the offices of the president and chairman of the board of Union Carbide, William Sneath.

Actually, while I find his offices with little trouble, it takes a bit more searching to find Sneath. First, I wait while his receptionist contacts one of his staff assistants. Then a vice president receives me in his office, giving me Sneath's background and accomplishments, and generally scrutinizing me to see if I might traumatize his boss with an ill-chosen question. Finally, the vice president accompanies me to Sneath's enormous office--and stays for the interviews, injecting his comments quickly whenever I broach what he thinks is a sensitive issue.

Unfortunately, the interview consists of very little of what I consider sensitive. His prematurely white hair and light blue eyes make him look like the quintessential business executive, but he has very little to say about his involvement in national politics. He plays down his contact with elected officials: "When we (Union Carbide) get involved with issues, they're issues we have to get involved with anyway."

Like deButts and Adam, Sneath emphasizes the growing moderation of the business community. "I'm a Republican. The Democratic Administration has two years to go. There's no basis in my mind, either personally or as the corporation, to fight the President, "he says." We want to help him. We want him to succeed." Sneath disapproves of the "strictly political kneejerk reaction (which) is to take potshots at whoever is in office if he's with the opposition."

In general, Sneath avoids the kind of political involvement that deButts welcomes and that Adam endured for a year before returning to his role as corporate chief. He focuses mostly on concerns that affect Union Carbide directly. He leaves lobbying to his legislative vice presidents.

Sneath is bucking the current trend of the CEO's increasing political involvement. The large corporation is no longer content to merely send contributions to members of Congress in the hope that they will remember the generosity of corporate America when antitrust legislation and the like comes up for consideration. Big business now sends its titular heads as emmisaries to Washington. Like the ruler of a foreign nation, the CEO's charisma--derived from his control of billions and billions of dollars--gives him access to the powers-that-be in Washington. In principle, every citizen has equal political right. In practice, some are more equal than others.

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