Industry measures up Dems, picks its battles

Major business groups have revamped their legislative wish lists, resurrecting some longstanding but moribund items and backing off of others, in the hopes of scoring some victories in a Democratic-controlled Congress.

Major business groups have revamped their legislative wish lists, resurrecting some longstanding but moribund items and backing off of others, in the hopes of scoring some victories in a Democratic-controlled Congress.

At this time last year, boosting domestic energy supply was a top priority for both the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). Though they haven’t abandoned that goal, the industry groups are now trumpeting their support for expanded research into alternative fuels and clean-energy technologies, a popular cause among Democrats.

Meanwhile, they’ve shifted the modernization of the transportation system, long a concern of the business community, to center stage. Last week, the Chamber announced the launch of a new initiative to promote investment in the nation’s highways, rail network, ports and waterways.

It is characterizing that initiative, as well as a plan to pour money into energy infrastructure, as government-backed jobs programs in a clear effort to appeal to Democrats.

“With the right kind of rebuilding program, not just in transportation but in energy and power as well, we could employ a massive number of Americans for a long, long time,” said Thomas J. Donohue, the president of the Chamber, at a press briefing on Thursday.

A deal on immigration that includes a guest worker program and a path to citizenship for law-abiding aliens is perhaps the most feasible business goal, thanks to the informal agreement of Democrats, several labor unions and the White House on the issue.

On the defensive side, the business lobby seems intent on picking its battles, to judge by its capitulation on minimum-wage legislation, which is expected to pass the House this week.

Meanwhile, Donohue vowed to fend off any attempt by Congress to change the law to make it easier for workers to form unions. Most Democrats and some labor-friendly Republicans back the legislation, but industry groups are vowing to defeat it.

“They’re going to have a major fight on their hands,” Donohue said.

A week after the election, America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) announced a proposal to expand access to health insurance coverage to every American — an idea that is touted by most Democrats. For years, AHIP has engaged in many policy battles with Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.), the new Ways and Means health subcommittee chairman.

AHIP, whose PAC has significantly favored Republicans in recent elections, says it is planning to work with all members of Congress on its new proposal.

Where they are stymied in Congress, business interests are likely to turn to the executive branch to accomplish their goals. While hopes still run high among corporate lobbyists for legislation that follows on the heels of last year’s bill that opened up acreage in the Gulf of Mexico for oil and gas drilling, they see the Minerals Management Service (MMS) as another route to achieve that goal.

“They could as well begin to open up other portions of the Gulf and follow up what Congress enacted last year,” said Bruce Josten, the executive vice president of the Chamber, which has filed a comment to the MMS on its plans to expand oil and gas exploration on federal lands.

The Chamber already spends 60 percent of its efforts on the regulatory agencies, estimates William Kovacs, who heads up lobbying on environmental, energy and other issues at the association. “The real work is done by the regulatory agencies,” he says, noting that some 192,000 regulations are overseen by the executive branch.

Several business lobbyists denied they would change tack to navigate a more hostile environment in Washington, insisting their agenda does not shift with the political winds.

“The good news for us is that we don’t have to change the game plan. We don’t lick our finger and stick it up in the air and see what our policy will be,” said Charles Drevna, a lobbyist at the National Petrochemical & Refiners Association.

Many are pinning their hopes on the Democratic leadership working across the aisle to achieve legislative accomplishments.

“Those that govern most successfully govern from the center,” said Jay Timmons, NAM’s senior vice president for government relations.

“Of course, we would have the backstop of the legislative branch,” he added.