September 7, 2016

The Canary in the Coal Mine is Dead

Charles Merin

charles-merin@2xOn September 4, Steven Pearlstein authored a piece in the Washington Post that I commend for your reading. Entitled, “How Big Business Lost Washington,” it’s an illuminative summary of the many bipartisan missteps by the business community over the past two decades. Personally, I greatly appreciated his special shout-out to Tom DeLay, whose craven, confrontationally partisan approach to governance created a cancer whose legacy metastasizes to this day. Pearlstein wrote about “the relentless pressure from Wall Street that eroded the enlightened self-interest that made it possible for executives to put the country’s interests first.” He highlighted the growing divisions within the current American business community whose earlier homogeneity around major policy matters helped amplify its’ collective voice.

Today, America’s business marketplace, in all of its’ vibrant manifestations, is under stress. The “business of doing business” is more complicated and difficult than ever resulting from challenges that range from increased engagement by government at every level, to changing demographic and social norms, to painful realities attendant to economic stagnation, income inequality, and diminished faith in the American Dream.

American business interests face a coming “High Noon” moment when it comes to doing business in the Nation’s Capital: suspicion from Democrats who largely feel ignored by its’ support for their GOP rivals; mistrust from amongst the growing ranks of populist Republicans who view Wall Street and corporate America with contempt; rising populist sentiment within both Parties that embraces the message of haves versus have nots; weakened national political parties with weakened leaders;  a legislative environment that compromises brokers’ ability to make deals to get things done; the ongoing winnowing in both Chambers and both Parties of the ideological middle, and the corollary dominance in politics and the legislative process of the extremes; and a growing concern amongst bipartisan officials that the concentration of corporate power amongst ever larger interests is worthy of serious scrutiny.

My fear is that the real victim in all of this will be the pursuit of the greater good by office-holders and the supplicants who lobby them. The coarsening of public life has created many negative consequences, singularly important to me being the dumbing down of the legislative process. Textured, complex policy matters become black and white; compromise and accommodation in pursuit of a common goal have become too infrequent; the simple act of separating fact from fiction, distinguishing an evidentiary based argument from opinion, has become all too novel. Members come to most policy discussions with a considerable bias that is happily fed by their allies. “Ye shall reap what ye shall sow” is a biblical admonition that applies here. We, as increasingly estranged members of an American society most easily defined by its’ highly tribal parts, are equally accountable for this toxic environment and its’ tragic policy stagnation. The real question becomes a very urgent “Where do we go from here?”

Following the November elections, interest groups of all stripes will begin their customary efforts to win new friends and to assuage the anger of the Party they did not support. The logic of that tired kabuki dance only makes sense if, having employed a political and PAC strategy that clearly favored one side over the other, you truly believe that election results are aberrations, and that either Party might one day secure long-term political dominance. That’s just not going to happen folks, as the dismal public approval ratings for both national parties, Congress as an institution, and faith in government to solve the problems of real people, continues to trend downward. So, if betting on either Party to become dynastic, with long-term, unassailable policy reach is a chimera, then where does that leave business interests to go?

My thoughts doubtless reflect my frustration as a long-time Blue Dog Democrat, fiscally conservative and socially accepting, who often wonders what happened to common sense.  For more than thirty years at Prime Policy Group and at its’ predecessor firms, I have made my living representing the private sector. From large corporations to smaller ones; from diversified trade associations to business issue coalitions; when finding common ground for franchisors and their franchisees; I have made it my goal to pursue a strategy that wins for both the near and long-terms. While I am an optimist by nature, no one has ever accused me of being a Pollyanna. So, here then are some real world recommendations for the general business community that focuses on how to build enduring bridges with my tribe, the Democrats:

The late paleontologist, Stephen Jay Gould, wrote that “there is nothing more dangerous than a dogmatic worldview- nothing more constraining, more blinding to innovation, more destructive of openness to novelty.” Perhaps it’s time to make 2017 a new beginning for the business community: less tribal, more aspirational, with a greater emphasis on the doing of good while doing well. A greater focus on problem solving than upon partisan preference. The American people believe that both parties have failed them. Thoughtful leadership by the private sector could go a long way towards repairing the average American’s faith in their own futures as well as in the enduring appeal of the American Dream.


Chuck Merin

Chuck, Prime Policy Group’s executive Vice President, possesses more than 45 years of Washington experience, beginning with service as a congressional staffer. He has established himself as the premier lobbyist for service and hospitality industry interests in Washington. He is an expert in building legislative coalitions and helping clients forge effective, long-term relationships on Capitol Hill. Chuck is perhaps best known for his close affiliation with the Blue Dog Coalition, an alliance of more than two dozen pro-business, conservative House Democrats whose votes are much coveted.