Businesses lackluster in support of jobs bill

Business associations that were enthusiastic supporters of the first stimulus package have yet to get behind a second jobs bill.


Lobbyists cited several reasons for the shift in support. The healthcare reform battle has left little time to work on much else. The jobs measure leaves out tax credits that businesses had sought. And tension has risen between the Obama administration and the private sector over White House efforts to impose new regulations on the private sector.

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Democratic leaders have already pushed the bill through the House despite the lack of support from business groups. But if businesses sit out the debate, Democrats may have a tougher time attracting the support of a few Republicans whose votes may be needed in the Senate. Republican votes would also enable Democrats to sell the bill as bipartisan to broaden public support for the package.

Last February, then-Republican Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) touted the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s endorsement of the stimulus as a reason why he supported the package. Specter and Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine were the only three GOP members to vote for the stimulus last year. Specter has since switched parties.

The three voted yes on the stimulus after weeks of lobbying by the Chamber, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and other business groups. Neither the Chamber nor the NAM has lent the same level of support to the jobs bill so far.

NAM spokeswoman Laura Narvaiz said the group supports the additional infrastructure spending in the jobs package as a way to create jobs and growth. But she said the jobs bill needed to be more “comprehensive.”

“We remain concerned … that the House jobs bill doesn’t go far enough to ensure long-term growth and create lasting high-paying jobs,” Narvaiz said.

The jobs bill would extend unemployment benefits, child tax credits and healthcare benefits for unemployed workers. In addition, almost $50 billion will be spent on infrastructure improvements. The total value of the package is $150 billion.

A Chamber spokesman said the business group also supports more construction spending. But it is against using money left over from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) to help pay for the bill, which House Democrats nevertheless added.

The Chamber “outright opposes using TARP for something it wasn’t designed to do,” said J.P. Fielder, a spokesman for the business group.

The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), which represents small businesses, also likes some parts of the jobs bill, namely a provision to increase lending by the Small Business Administration.

But Bill Rys, NFIB’s tax counsel, says the legislation does not do enough to boost sales.

“It really doesn’t get at the issue that we see in our surveys, which is lost sales and the pullback in economic activity that follows, such as reducing the workforce or not investing as much in their businesses,” Rys said.

NFIB wanted a payroll tax holiday, but the provision was not added to the bill. NFIB has not shifted its position, however: It also did not support the stimulus because the payroll tax break was not added to the package.

In addition to the specific provisions in the jobs package, some lobbyists said support has waned because the jobs bill is not the singular legislative item this time. Business lobbyists are also busy working on the healthcare reform bill.

“Some of the lack of the enthusiasm you are seeing for the bill was it was rushed together and it was hidden under the cloud of healthcare,” said Jeff Shoaf, senior executive director for government affairs of Associated General Contractors. The AGC is supporting the jobs bill for its spending on construction.

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The first time Congress took up a stimulus, in the early days of the Obama administration, there was little else to distract either members of Congress or outside lobbyists.

“The difference between February and December last year was palpable,” said one business association lobbyist.

Another difference is in the relationship between the White House and some business groups after a year in which the administration has pushed broad private-sector reforms on healthcare, financial services and energy.

The business association lobbyist said the growing divide was underscored when the Chamber, NAM and other business groups were not invited to the White House Jobs Summit in December.

NFIB openly criticized the administration for not inviting it to the summit.

“It is unfathomable that the president refused to invite to his job summit the very people who know how to create jobs: small-business owners,” NFIB said on its website.

The White House denied any rift between itself and the business community.

“The administration continues to have an open and productive relationship with the business community, including trade organizations, and the forum we hosted almost six weeks ago was an opportunity to hear from new voices and faces from across the country,” said Jen Psaki, the White House’s deputy communications director.

“We will continue to solicit ideas from all areas and look forward to working with the business community and anyone who comes to the table with good ideas on options for job creation in the months to come,” Psaki said.

The Senate is expected to act on the jobs bill as soon as healthcare reform legislation is completed. According to a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the legislation is a top priority.

“Repairing our economy and creating jobs will remain at the forefront of our agenda this year,” said Regan Lachapelle, a Reid spokeswoman.