For months, as Bob Dole's Presidential campaign floundered, business executives were able to console themselves with the belief that Congress would remain in GOP hands. No more. With polls showing the Democrats in striking distance of recapturing the House--and maybe the Senate--new gloom is settling over CEO-land. "The big-government people could be back in control," frets Roland S. Boreham Jr., head of Baldor Electric Co., a Fort Smith (Ark.) maker of electric motors with annual sales of $473 million.
Hold on, say Democratic leaders. On the campaign stump, they're making a solemn pledge to Boreham and other skeptical execs: This time, it will be different. Democrats insist they have been chastened by their 1994 rejection. Any sharp tilt to the left, they realize, would likely be checked in the new Congress by a ruling coalition of Republicans and moderate Democrats. And voters will oust them from power again if they don't pursue a centrist course.
LEFTWARD TILT. So expect a "modest and moderate" agenda, says House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.). Adds Representative Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), who's in line to run the government oversight panel in a Democratic-controlled House: "We learned a lesson from the last time around. We need to be very careful to make sure taxpayers' money is being used wisely." Representative Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), who would head the House Ways & Means Committee, chimes in: "Just because I don't go to the country clubs doesn't mean I don't understand business."
Still, there's no question that if the Dems retake Congress, the new leadership would lean left. The likely House Speaker, Gephardt, is a persistent critic of multinational corporations that export U.S. jobs. Gephardt's top lieutenant, Representative David E. Bonior of Michigan, led the fight against the North American Free Trade Agreement and welfare reform. Committee chairs would include such inveterate liberals as John D. Dingell of Michigan.
Yet Democratic priorities may be more in sync with business interests than in the past. Party leaders vow to balance the budget, for one thing. Their spending priorities differ from those of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), but there's little talk about tax hikes as a means to ending the deficit.
Business could even be in for a pleasant surprise: Moderate Democrats, especially in the Senate, want to cut capital-gains taxes. With President Clinton's support, it could become part of a bipartisan budget deal. Rangel says he also would push to win tax breaks for companies that invest in education and worker training. And high-tech companies welcome promises by Gephardt and Senator Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.) to restore the manufacturing technology centers and advanced technology programs gutted by GOP budget-cutters.
Most leaders of big companies, which generally have lavished contributions on both parties, aren't really sweating. "We've been able to have a hearing and an open discussion on our views" under both Democratic and Republican leadership, says Ford Chairman Alexander J. Trotman. Aside from that, most would-be Democratic freshmen are pro-business moderates. Business also would find friendly faces in prospective committee chairmen such as Representatives Charles W. Stenholm (Tex.) at agriculture and John J. LaFalce (N.Y.) at small-business or banking.
But many small and midsize companies are jittery. "It would be terrible," groans Richard J. Egan, chairman of Massachusetts-based EMC Corp., a data-storage firm. Egan fears a Democratic Congress would "spend money like crazy." Big Tobacco also had best be wary. Led by Waxman, Democrats vow to pursue new tobacco regulations as well as possible criminal charges against executives who have testified that nicotine is not addictive. Waxman says that tobacco is the only business constituency "that has reason to be fearful."
Other big companies likely won't escape entirely. Slashing corporate welfare "will be a big, big item," predicts Gillian Spooner of the accounting firm KPMG Peat Marwick. An unlikely alliance of liberal Democrats, who want business to share in budget-balancing pain, and conservative Republicans, who oppose government intervention, will see to that. Meanwhile, multinationals worry that House Democrats could derail Administration efforts to cut a deal with China next year on its entry to the World Trade Organization. And protectionists Gephardt and Bonior could stymie Administration trade initiatives such as expanding NAFTA to Chile.
The Republicans may yet hold on to their congressional majority: Their $18 million war chest, much of which will go into last-minute ads, is more than double that of their foes. But if the Democrats win, it will take more than conciliatory rhetoric to allay business' worries about a counterrevolution on Capitol Hill.