Business Group Praises Budget Cuts, Sets '05 Agenda

Top officials from the Business Roundtable, an association of CEOs of large companies, called on the administration and Congress yesterday to address the rising cost of healthcare, curb the budget deficit through spending cuts, enact the class-action bill and reform Social Security. Coming from a breakfast meeting with senators on class-action reform, Roundtable Chairman Hank McKinnell, President John Castellani and others outlined their top priorities for 2005, which also included expanding free-trade agreements and supporting tax policy benefiting multinational companies.

Top officials from the Business Roundtable, an association of CEOs of large companies, called on the administration and Congress yesterday to address the rising cost of healthcare, curb the budget deficit through spending cuts, enact the class-action bill and reform Social Security.


Coming from a breakfast meeting with senators on class-action reform, Roundtable Chairman Hank McKinnell, President John Castellani and others outlined their top priorities for 2005, which also included expanding free-trade agreements and supporting tax policy benefiting multinational companies.


About 60 CEOs were in town yesterday to attend one of the group’s quarterly meetings. They were scheduled to meet with President Bush yesterday afternoon.


McKinnell, who serves as CEO of drug company Pfizer and chairman of Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, listed healthcare reform as the Roundtable’s top priority.


“Healthcare pops up as number 1 in this almost every time. … Sixty percent of Roundtable CEOs indicate it’s their No. 1 issue,” he said.


Michael McCallister, CEO of Humana, said, “We’re spending a lot. Quality and efficiency is poor, and we’re getting the wrong healthcare.”


Specifically, the Roundtable will press for greater use of information technology in healthcare, expansion of health savings accounts, transparency and quality in databases and a reauthorization of the National Institutes of Health to promote medical research and to “improve outcomes,” which McCallister characterized as “a slight change in their mission.”


On the fiscal side, the business group called for controls on the rate of government spending, especially discretionary spending, and praised cuts in the president’s budget proposal. Tax reform should be revenue-neutral, the group said, and should be more favorable to U.S. companies working overseas.


The group also highlighted Social Security reform through private accounts, yet McCallister said, “The Medicare problem is much bigger than the Social Security problem — much, much bigger.”


The Roundtable stressed the need for reduced entitlement spending but supports the new Medicare bill, which has shortened the solvency of the program. McAllister said the measure is “a big step forward” in moving Medicare toward the private sector.


Nonetheless, the group’s most immediate priority in entitlement reform is Social Security. The Roundtable is a member of the Coalition for the Modernization and Protection of America's Social Security (Compass), which plans to spend $15 million to $20 million promoting the president’s reform plan, Freeman said, an amount similar to what business spent pushing the 2003 dividend tax cuts. The group recently hired two public affairs firms to press for Social Security reform, Democracy Data and Apco Worldwide.


The Roundtable said its support for private accounts stemmed from an overall desire for fiscal stability and economic growth, despite Democratic charges that privatization would make Social Security more unstable by diverting payroll taxes from the current system to private accounts.


“It’s part of a profound shift from defined benefit plans,” McKinnell said. “People are showing a greater reliance on their own accounts.”


McCallister said, “The math would have to be worked out. … Younger people are more familiar with” private accounts.


McKinnell indicated that the Roundtable is opposed to raising the $90,000 tax ceiling on Social Security, which has been floated by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).


The group also pressed for pension reform, saying that it was studying the president’s recently proposed plan. “It will require a lot of work to get the pension legislation right,” McCallister said.


McKinnell said that the government had to do more to protect intellectual property. “Foreign governments aren’t respecting patents and trademarks.”


The Roundtable CEOs were also scheduled to meet with Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-N.Y.), National Economic Council Chairman Al Hubbard and former Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer (R-Texas), among others.


They had hoped to have dinner with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), but she had a scheduling conflict, Freeman said.