By Bernie Becker - 05/10/11 10:26 AM EDT
It was the swap heard 'round K Street. Late last year, John Engler announced, seemingly out of the blue, that he was leaving the top job at the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) to head up the Business Roundtable, another of Washington’s premier lobby groups.
Now, just about four months into his Roundtable tenure, the former three-term Michigan governor says he has no regrets about the move, even if he does sound a bit sentimental about his time at NAM.
“I loved working with the manufacturers — enjoyed every minute of my nearly six and a half years there,” Engler said during an interview at the Roundtable offices on Rhode Island Avenue. “Their focus — they all want to compete, they all want to win. They’re really single-minded in what they’re doing.”
Engler said he is excited to be working in such a close partnership with America’s top CEOs.
“This is their organization,” said Engler, who cultivated a business-friendly reputation during his more than three decades as an elected official in Michigan. “And so it gives us the opportunity, when we are focused on some issues, to really have some impact. That’s kind of fun, and it’s something that I think will become even more satisfying as we go forward.”
Looking ahead, Engler believes that there are a number of steps the U.S. can take on issues from immigration to taxes to trade that would help U.S. companies succeed in the global marketplace.
“I think we should do everything we can to immediately restore America’s competitiveness, so we can go out in the world and win,” he said.
Engler said the Obama administration has in some ways succeeded at resetting its relationship with the business community, but said there remain clear, substantive differences between the two sides. He said job creators are being burdened by regulations in areas like healthcare, financial services and environmental policy.
“There are policy disagreements, or policy concerns, that exist,” Engler said, though he added he did not think all of those issues are “on the president’s desk every day or every week.”
Even in areas where Engler thinks there is potential for common ground with the administration — such as corporate tax reform — roadblocks have started to appear.
The Roundtable, business executives and administration officials agree that the corporate tax rate needs to come down from its top marginal rate of 35 percent.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has signaled a desire to get the rate down to the high 20s, while top Republicans like House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) have called for the corporate rate to max out at 25 percent.
But Engler indicated that he thinks the rate should go down further than that, with other industrialized countries having already pushed rates lower than 25 percent.
“It’s very uninspiring to say: ‘Let’s really work hard and see if we can get the rate all the way down to 25 — we can be average,’ ” Engler said. “I’d like to do better.”
Engler — now in his second presidential administration on K Street — said he never imagined that he would someday be working on issues like tax reform from the nation’s capital.
“I always used to joke that the last place I’d ever be is Washington,” the Mt. Pleasant, Mich., native said. “So naturally, that’s where I end up. I’m being punished for trying to be flip.”
But now that he is here, Engler said it is helpful to have longstanding relationships with a number of Michigan lawmakers who have not only risen to powerful positions in Congress, but also have seen firsthand the impact of the economic downturn on their home state.
At the start of the year, shortly before Engler settled into his new digs at the Roundtable, a pair of Michigan Republicans — Camp and Rep. Fred Upton — took over the gavels of the House Ways and Means and Energy and Commerce panels, respectively.
Michigan Democrats like Rep. Sandy Levin (ranking member on Ways and Means) and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee) are also in position to shape the debate on economic issues.
“It’s helpful, I think to the Congress, because these are people from a state that’s been hard-hit economically, who understand, I think, what competing requires,” said Engler.
Still, even though he is enjoying his run in Washington, the former governor says he has no desire to seek elected office again.
“I won 10 straight elections and left undefeated, so I was very happy to get out,” said Engler, who also served in the Michigan House and Senate and was considered for the GOP vice presidential slot in 1996. “To be able to walk out and not be carried out.”
And for that matter, the next time a Republican is in the Oval Office, don’t expect to see Engler add the title of Cabinet secretary to his résumé.
“College looms,” Engler said, referencing his high-school-age triplet daughters. “So the last time I checked, I’m not sure these Cabinet offices — they get a lot of work and very little pay. And I’m not sure it’s affordable in the Engler family budget.”