Business frugal in Roberts support

Business interests so far have avoided direct spending to influence the brewing Supreme Court confirmation battles, despite their emergent involvement in state judicial races and chief justice nominee John Roberts’s pro-industry credentials.

Both the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), whose combined lobbying bills for the first half of this year topped $21 million, have officially endorsed Roberts but have made no plans to buy advertising promoting their support. “These appointments are always viewed through a very narrow prism of social issues. We are getting disenfranchised because no one has ever looked at how [federal judges] deal with our issues,” said Pat Cleary, a lobbyist and senior vice president of communications at NAM. The trade association has sent communications alerts to its members on Roberts and is mulling a possible public appearance next week by its president, John Engler.

A lobbyist for one of the groups that has endorsed Roberts echoed Cleary’s sentiment. “When people ask about social issues, my very consistent answer is: ‘We don’t give a shit.’ We care about business issues. … If we lobby two branches of government, why don’t we lobby the third? We’ve got to be in this fight. Debate-discussion-slash-fight.”

“So many critical business issues are weighed by the courts, from the state level all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, so it’s very important for the business community to have concern as to the judges making these decisions,” said Robin Conrad, NCLC senior vice president.

Conrad went on to characterize the Chamber’s activity on Roberts as “a wait-and-see approach,” a holding-off that she said would also apply to the president’s next Supreme Court nomination. The Chamber has had close relations with Roberts throughout his career, filing briefs on his behalf and retaining him as counsel on several occasions.

The business world’s relative quiet on Roberts comes as a surprise to some, said Larry Noble, executive director of the campaign-finance watchdog Center for Responsive Politics.

“Nobody really knows why,” Noble said. “If business goes out strongly and supports Roberts, that may provoke a reaction on the other side. Up until now, it’s been perceived that they are getting what they want.”

In addition to representing a litany of corporate clients while in private practice, Roberts served as an unpaid adviser to the National Legal Center for the Public Interest (NLCPI), a business-bankrolled foundation.

The NLCPI’s chairman, former lobbyist and White House counsel Fred Fielding, sits on the Committee for Justice along with Engler, of NAM. The Committee and Progress for America (PFA) have been two of Roberts’s most visible champions since his nomination was announced, though PFA spokeswoman Jessica Boulanger said her organization had no plans to work with industry lobbyists.

“A group like NAM, for example, [I don’t know] how much we work with them aside from sharing similar goals,” Boulanger said. Though the group has no registered lobbying presence, the PFA accounts for an estimated $1.4 million out of a total $1.77 million spent to promote President Bush’s Supreme Court nominees so far this year, according to a study from the Brennan Center for Justice.

Other business associations have followed NAM and the Chamber’s lead, praising Roberts’s qualifications but refraining from public lobbying on his behalf.

One prominent business lobbyist with ties to the White House said the business community’s cautious approach to Supreme Court lobbying was due at least in part to grassroots reticence.

“This is not without controversy within the membership of the organizations,” the lobbyist said. “There is a concern from members that, because fault lines lie on social issues, that business organizations should not join the fight. … You’re not going to have a car maker be pro-choice or pro-life.”