Bill Miller knows business. Miller ran a disc jockey entertainment
company before he graduated from college. Since then he has helped
launched a bank and at least two restaurants — never mind trying to get
a television pilot off the ground.
He also happens to be the chief lobbyist for the Business Roundtable, Washington’s own influence outpost for the country’s most powerful CEOs.
“The lessons I learned from running my own small business were pretty easily translatable into politics,” Miller said, comparing his start in the workforce to his time as a surrogate in the press. “Being on television is a little bit stressful. It’s not as stressful as introducing a Greek wedding party.”
After 12 years at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a stint at the Brunswick Group public-relations firm, Miller has been back in the trade-association world for about six months now as a senior vice president for the Business Roundtable.
He said his own wins and losses in business have helped make him a better lobbyist for chief executives, as well as honing his skills in relating with lawmakers.
“It allows me to tell a better story when I’m trying to discuss the challenges to American business, and hopefully it gives a little bit more of a perspective of someone who has actually taken risks,” Miller said. “I have only taken little risks. These guys [CEOs] are making million-dollar bets every day.”
The Silver Spring, Md., native grew up in politics and government. His father was a Montgomery County judge.
“The Washington Post was my home newspaper. Politics always was something that was around me,” said Miller, who graduated from the University of Maryland and got his law degree from American University.
Miller’s entry into politics was as a volunteer.
First tasked with fundraising by former Rep. Connie Morella (R-Md.) for her 1990 reelection bid, he ended up as her campaign manager. That would lead to his managing her races until 1998 and a five-year tour on Capitol Hill as her chief of staff.
“I ended up being a driver, a strategist and a fundraiser,” Miller said. “It was like running Connie Morella Inc.”
Miller said it was an intense time to be working in Congress, especially given that Morella’s constituents in her suburban-D.C. district were only a short Metro ride or local phone call away.
Morella, a centrist Republican, was in high demand and was often on the phone with President Clinton to secure her vote on legislation. The lawmaker was one of the few Republicans to vote against Clinton’s impeachment.
In 1999, Miller left Capitol Hill for the Chamber. As its political director, he helped build a formidable election machine. Miller’s last campaign with the Chamber was the 2010 midterm elections, in which the business group spent more than $32 million on issue ads either supporting or attacking lawmakers, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
“For Donohue, I would have run through any wall — and I did, a lot of times. My job was to be that guy,” Miller said, referring to Tom Donohue, the Chamber’s president and CEO.
Miller’s work at the business group is still evident today.
Tom Collamore, the Chamber’s senior vice president of communications and strategy, said Miller was treated like “a visiting rock star” at local chambers as he helped to expand the group’s membership. And Miller helped make the business group into a powerful political force.
“He really was the architect of the Chamber’s modern political program. If you look at the body of work over the past several election cycles, that’s some significant achievement. Bill really was a driver of that,” Collamore said.
Miller’s time at the Chamber won him respect in Washington.
“I’ve always found him to be a great strategic thinker and very much a team player,” said Gary Andres, staff director for the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Working at the Business Roundtable is a change for Miller compared to the Chamber, where “you had a big budget and you had the ability to light someone’s house on fire to get their attention,” Miller said. The Business Roundtable doesn’t score congressional votes, has no political action committee and doesn’t fund political ads.
“What you have, though, is you have this collection of arguably the most influential group of individuals who have the most bearing on the health of the economy that there is in America,” Miller said. “You are able to take their knowledge, their expertise and their leverage and weigh in on the big issues.”
That influence led to some harsh words from Republicans and other trade groups last month, particularly in response to a Dec. 11 letter from the Business Roundtable saying raising tax rates could be considered part of a “fiscal cliff” deal.
Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said “big business” might support raising taxes on small businesses, but he didn’t. Steve Caldeira, president and CEO of the International Franchise Association, said it seemed that the CEOs “seem[ed] so out of touch with what this country needs right now.”
Miller said the Business Roundtable had spoken with Camp and other GOP lawmakers to discuss the Dec. 11 letter. Miller said the group was trying to resolve the crisis, not alienate anyone.
“Our goal was to not try to curry favor. Our goal was to try to articulate what we believed to be a sensible, down-the-middle approach, and when you do that, sometimes people are going to get their feathers ruffled. We understand that. That’s part of this business,” Miller said.
The eventual agreement did raise income tax rates on those single-filers and joint-filers making $400,000 or more and $450,000 or more a year, respectively. On the Business Roundtable’s plate this year will be several loose ends from the fiscal-cliff deal, including spending reductions, tax reform, the debt ceiling and the budget sequester.
Miller said the head of the Business Roundtable, former Michigan Gov. John Engler (R), has brought “a more muscular posture” to the group and that the trade group will be an active lobbying force for 2013.
“They’re optimists too, and they also feel a sense of responsibility to come and try to break gridlock,” Miller said. “The CEOs are feeling frustrated, for sure, but they are also feeling, I think, a heightened responsibility to continue to be here.”