Big business faces uphill battle against tea party interests

Despite some buyer's remorse about a Congress it helped create, business lobby's interests are still in line with GOP

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, speaks during "Exempt America From Obamacare" rally in September.
2013 Getty Images

In the wake of a near-catastrophic breach of the debt ceiling and a costly two-week government shutdown that did little to forward the objectives of GOP lawmakers, evidence of a widening rift between big business and conservatives in the Republican Party was on full display this week.

Chief executive officers and heads of business groups expressed their alarm with conservative members they helped finance in the previous two congressional elections — legislators who nevertheless steered the country toward near-default.

At a Christian Science Monitor breakfast in Washington with reporters on Monday, Tom Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the most formidable pro-business lobbying group in the country, said he appreciated the small government instincts of tea party-aligned members. But he warned that the chamber would look at which candidates to support in the 2014 congressional races with an eye toward those who would work for the long-term economic health of the country.

“I can’t stress enough what a default on our foreign debt — not on our private debt and not on the debt to the Federal Reserve or any of that, but a real default — would put us in a position that changed our position around the world that increased our interest costs,” he said.

Asked by a reporter whether the chamber should tell conservative hero Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, one of the champions of the failed GOP strategy, to “sit down and shut up,” Donohue answered: “That’s one of the things we can work with him on.”

David French, the top lobbyist for the National Retail Federation, has been more blunt, vowing to aggressively challenge the strain of anti-government conservatism that gave rise to the October crises.

“We are looking at ways to counter the rise of an ideological brand of conservatism that, for lack of a better word, is more anti-establishment than it has been in the past,” he told The New York Times.

John Feehery, a former GOP leadership aide and an executive at the lobbying firm Quinn Gillespie and Associates, said the business community would do well to start taking seriously the challenge of changing a dysfunctional Congress.  

“They can’t do it by sitting on the sidelines, and they can’t by blindly giving money to every Republican,” he said. “They’ve got to be much more aggressive in funding challengers who are going to be pro-business.”

In many ways, this is a problem of the business lobby’s own making.

The American Bankers Association, another powerful pro-business lobbying organization, contributed more than $2.1 million in the last two election cycles to members who voted against reopening the government and raising the debt ceiling last week, according to a joint analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics and The Washington Post.

It followed closely on the heels of the conservative Club for Growth, which gave upwards of $3.2 million to those members. Honeywell International, AT&T, the National Association of Realtors and Deloitte were also top contributors to such members, despite many executives' warnings about the disastrous effects of a debt ceiling breach.

But if financial firms and business groups are feeling buyer's remorse setting in about the Congress they helped create, it may be more difficult than acknowledged to change course now.

Big business may have once had a monopoly on the high dollar donations flowing to candidates, but in recent years conservative organizations like the Club for Growth, the Senate Conservatives Fund and Heritage Action have grown in stature and are now capable of writing six-figure checks to candidates who meet their test of ideological purity.  

House conservatives, some of whom are saying they are spoiling for the next budget fight, also have the incumbent advantage now. The re-election rate for those already serving in the House hovers near 90 percent.

And despite their current displeasure, all interest groups ultimately want friends on Capitol Hill.

“Big money generally is conservative, in that it wants to go with the sure thing,” said Kathy Kiely, managing editor of the Sunlight Foundation, an organization that tracks money in politics. “So unless the business community thinks there is a serious challenge and that somebody really has a chance of upending the incumbent, the tea party candidates will have that advantage.”

Moreover, relatively few credible primary challengers have arisen against conservative members for 2014, as time winds down for candidates to mount serious campaigns against incumbents. When push comes to shove, said Viveca Novak, communications director of the Center for Responsive Politics, the interests of the business community are still inextricably intertwined with the interests of the Republican Party.

“There are reasons — beyond votes like lifting the debt ceiling — why the business groups like some of these lawmakers. They tend to be for lower taxes, they tend to be anti-regulation,” she said. “It’s going to be difficult for business to figure out how to make the party a little bit more business-friendly again.”

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