Obama-friendly business group given great access to the White House

A business group considered friendly to President Obama has been granted high-level access to senior White House officials as “fiscal cliff” negotiations have gripped Washington.

Business Forward on Thursday will host the last in a series of seven briefings where high-level Obama administration officials have discussed the budgets cuts and tax increases of the fiscal cliff with business executives.

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Attendees at the briefings have included senior adviser Valerie Jarrett; Alan Krueger, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers; Jeffrey Zients, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget; and Fred Hochberg, head of the U.S. Export-Import Bank.

Some of Business Forward’s members include AT&T, Facebook, Lockheed Martin, McDonald’s, Verizon and Wal-Mart, according to the group’s website. 

The White House outreach comes amid a broader push by Obama to rally business support for a deficit deal. The president has summoned groups of chief executives to the White House for fiscal cliff discussions, and on Wednesday made a visit to the Business Roundtable, one of the leading industry groups in town. 

But some in Washington say Business Forward — a name that evokes the slogan of the president’s reelection campaign — enjoys a favored status with the White House because it was formed in 2009 explicitly to advance the president’s agenda.

“When you’re an ally of the president, you can often bring in as many people into the White House that you want,” said Jade West, senior vice president of government relations for the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors.

“Business Forward is a political organization founded to support the Obama administration. So the fact they can bring people in to see the president and his people is neither a surprise nor terribly impressive,” West said. 

Face-time with administration officials is always a valuable commodity, and has added value now that lawmakers are negotiating a deal to avert the policy changes of the fiscal cliff. 

Business leaders and lobbyists are jockeying to assure that their favored tax policies and government programs survive, and often push lawmakers and administration officials to protect their interests. 

Bert Kaufman, the executive director of Business Forward, said the group’s engagement with the White House on the fiscal cliff began soon after Obama won reelection. The group looked to invite executives who had participated in past briefings with White House officials. 

“The idea was to invite these [executives] back in town and get a sense of what’s at stake with the fiscal cliff. They go back home and talk to their colleagues, their clients and their networks. They write op-eds, talk to reporters and talk about the need for a balanced approach,” Kaufman said. “The idea is to have a robust engagement here.”

The seven sessions were to include a presentation from an Obama administration economist on fiscal trends and an overview on the “fiscal cliff” from an administration budget expert, according to an email that Kaufman shared with The Hill. 

Kaufman said no one involved bought access to the White House since the group did not charge any fees to attend the briefings. Most of the attendees were guests of Business Forward member companies, he said.

“Our entire revenue model is structured off our corporate membership,” Kaufman said. “Most people who come to these briefings don’t pay a dime, except to pay for their travel to come here.”

Business Forward has grown to include more than 40 member companies in the last three years, according to Kaufman, and has organized more than 50 fly-in visits this year to connect business leaders with the White House

The group hasn’t been shy about highlighting its ties to Obama, and has promoted the fiscal cliff briefings on a Tumblr page that features photos of the administration officials who have attended.

Business Forward is also promoting the op-eds and media appearances of executives who have heard the White House presentations. Those statements often align with Obama’s priorities in the fiscal-cliff talks, including calls to raise tax rates on the wealthy.

“We did not speak for business leaders. We provide a platform for business leaders to come and speak for themselves,” Kaufman said. “What we hear from the business community is the need for a balanced approach and the need for new revenue in any deal.” 

David Schlaifer, president and CEO of Doctors’ Administrative Solutions (DAS), was among the executives at one of the fiscal-cliff briefings. He called it a “great opportunity,” and said White House officials touted their deficit-reduction proposal.

“They are obviously promoting their position. … If I was promoting something, I’m sure I would want everybody out there talking about it,” Schlaifer said. “Their general tone was that they wanted to explain their position and get feedback on it. And I think they succeeded on both counts.” 

DAS is an electronic health records company based in Tampa, Fla. Schlaifer said he is particularly worried about whether lawmakers will pass a “doc fix” — a legislative patch to prevent deep cuts to doctors’ Medicare payments — in the year-end scramble.

“If nothing is done by Jan. 1, physicians will receive a 27 percent pay cut,” Schlaifer said. “We get to feel their pain every day. We just don’t implement the [electronic health records] system and walk away. We stay with them forever.” 

Leaders in both parties have been lobbying hard for the backing of the business community in the fiscal standoff.

Republican lawmakers in the House are waging their own outreach campaign. The office of Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) chastised Obama on Wednesday for meeting with “big business CEOs” while Republicans met with small-business owners who would suffer if tax rates are raised.

Obama has also met with small-business executives at the White House. 

More traditional business groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, are active in the fiscal discussions as well, but have been overshadowed by new coalitions like Fix the Debt, which has pushed the Simpson-Bowles Commission debt plan.

Kaufman said the opinion of business leaders has real weight. 

“Business leaders are incredibly important validators in their local communities. Members of Congress listen to their business leaders,” Kaufman said.

Schlaifer said he is hoping for a quick resolution for the fiscal cliff.

“I think everyone is trying to sell their point [on the fiscal cliff],” Schlaifer said. “We just want it resolved.”