For years, Sara Lee CEO John H. Bryan played the game of politics--holding his nose every time he opened his wallet. An early supporter of Bill Clinton, Bryan stewed privately over a fund-raising system he came to regard as "legal bribery." Says Bryan: "Candidates spend all of their lives raising money. The people who give the money don't like giving it. Everybody knows the system is absurd."
Now Bryan and like-minded execs are breaking their silence. And their efforts could be a turning point in the long-running struggle to enact campaign-finance reform. On Mar. 18, the business-backed Committee for Economic Development (CED) offered the first-ever corporate program designed to lessen the influence of big-bucks contributions on political campaigns. Among the CED proposals: an end to unlimited "soft money" donations to political parties, curbs on unregulated "issue-advocacy" ads, higher limits on individual contributions, and taxpayer subsidies to campaigns that agree to limit spending. Reforming campaign finance, says Bryan, a CED vice-chairman, "would be a great service that business could do for America."
While former raider Jerome Kohlberg and Omaha oracle Warren Buffett have been waging an uphill corporate crusade for campaign-finance reform for years, many sympathetic CEOs resisted speaking out for fear of angering the lawmakers they depend on for legislative favors. Now, reformers say they'll aggressively pursue an overhaul by sponsoring nationwide events, lobbying fellow CEOs, and buttonholing pols.
And with a board of CEO trustees that includes General Electric's John F. Welch Jr., Merck's Raymond V. Gilmartin, and Xerox's Paul A. Allaire, the CED can't be dismissed as a bunch of loopy left-wingers. "We're a relatively conservative group," says Edward A. Kangas, CEO of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu with some understatement.
Business involvement could inject new momentum into bipartisan reform efforts. "It's significant that the business community is willing to focus on this issue," says Representative Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), chief sponsor of reform legislation in the House. "It acknowledges that the system is broken and needs to be fixed."
The change of corporate heart could also increase pressure on GOP senators who have resisted reform but face tough reelection battles in 2000. Among them are Rod Grams of Minnesota, Slade Gorton of Washington, Spencer Abraham of Michigan, and John Ashcroft of Missouri. All rely heavily on corporate political-action committees.
SINKING IN. Even with their blue-ribbon credentials, the CEO reformers know they face a tough sell. "There's not yet a sense of public outrage," says Daniel Rose, a New York real estate exec. What's more, most Washington trade groups dismiss the new plan. "There's not a snowball's chance that the CED proposal will become law," says Business-Industry Political Action Committee President Gregory S. Casey.
But that's what Beltway insiders said about a balanced budget, a Republican House, and a Democratic President. Reform advocates were stunned on Mar. 24, when Senate Rules Committee Chairman Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), a champion of soft money and an implacable foe of public financing, convened his first-ever hearing on campaign-finance changes. His initial offering: triple the amount individuals can give and discuss some limits on soft money.
Is Capitol Hill finally starting to realize that campaign finance is an issue that won't go away? Maybe. If you believe Bryan and other blue-chip crusaders, they're not going to go away until they get some reforms.