New business group silent on taxes, trade

A new business coalition formed by Democrats allied with President Obama has been mum on White House positions opposed by some of its members.

While Business Forward members Microsoft and Pfizer oppose Obama’s plan to tax revenue earned by U.S. companies overseas, the coalition has not taken a stand on the issue.

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The group also is not pressing the administration to move forward on trade agreements with Panama, Colombia and South Korea, even though some members of the group want Congress to approve those deals as negotiated by the Bush administration.

“We are not trying to speak for business on every issue,” said Jim Doyle, executive director of Business Forward.

He said the group is trying to engage members of the business community on issues where they can have an impact on Obama’s agenda. He said that’s a fundamental difference between Business Forward and groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which also represents many of Business Forward’s members.

For example, the association released radio ads in Indiana and Arkansas last week calling on business leaders to get behind healthcare reform, on which Obama is stepping up his efforts.

A lobbyist for a business group with strong GOP ties said it’s not unexpected that a new association backed by Democrats would only seek to take positions in line with Obama’s.

“That doesn’t surprise me,” said Jade West, senior vice president of government relations for the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors.

She said Business Forward is following a number of business coalitions in getting behind major reform initiatives important to Obama in order to strengthen their voices in the debate.

“They are going to the areas where large swaths of the business community are playing in the administration’s sandbox,” West said.

Business Forward expects to be most active on energy, education and environmental legislation, as well as policies affecting the tech industry.

The association’s biggest selling point to K Street is its closeness to the White House. Its board includes Erik Smith, a paid media consultant to Obama’s 2008 campaign, and David Sutphen, brother to Mona Sutphen, a deputy White House chief of staff. A March policy briefing the group hosted to attract members featured several White House aides, including Valerie Jarrett, one of Obama’s closest advisers and friends.

But the group has not spoken up when its members oppose parts of Obama’s agenda.

For example, Obama has proposed a tax hike for multinationals by changing a law that allows companies to defer taxes on overseas revenue of their subsidiaries. Companies have lobbied against the move, and Microsoft and Pfizer signed onto a March 24 letter to congressional leaders stating their opposition.

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Another group member, IBM, is very much for free trade and advocates on its website for passage of the Korea free trade agreement. But trade has been a tricky subject for the new Democratic administration, which has put the brakes on the Panama deal.

Hotel giant Hilton, another member, is part of the American Hotel & Lodging Association that is lobbying against the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would make union organizing much easier. Both Obama and Vice President Biden have called on Congress to pass EFCA.

Business Forward so far has not taken a position on these issues.

Doyle said he anticipated policy differences between the administration and association members.

“They are going to disagree with each other and they are going to disagree with the administration on certain points,” Doyle said. “The question is: Are we going to improve the process by getting more people involved?”

Republicans and other business groups question how the new association can seek to represent industry when it does not speak out on such issues.

“I don’t know how a business coalition can ignore the base economic issues, like tax and trade,” West said. “It’s a great big chunk of the business community that they are leaving out.”

Doyle compared the new association to the United States Climate Action Partnership, a coalition of companies and environmental advocates that is lobbying for climate change legislation.

The partnership’s membership runs from ConocoPhillips to the Natural Resources Defense Council, so its members are unlikely to agree on every provision in the climate change bill. But the group believes action in general needs to be taken, Doyle said.

Business Forward will serve a similar function, giving a platform for business leaders who became involved in politics for the first time last year to stay involved and advocate for policy reforms.

The group plans to have as many as 20 corporations serve as founding members, but also wants to recruit smaller businesses to join. AT&T, Facebook, Hilton, IBM, Microsoft, Pfizer and Time Warner are among the initial members.

Business Forward does not plan to lobby. Instead, it plans to advocate for policy reforms through white papers, member surveys and press events.