Business Looks to Republicans to Block Obama on Rules, Taxes
The Republican victories in Congress mean U.S. companies from Goldman Sachs Group Inc. to WellPoint Inc. may be able to weaken or block what they consider President Barack Obama’s anti-business policies on health care, the environment, taxes and financial reform.
Republicans retook the House of Representatives yesterday with a gain of at least 60 seats, their biggest increase since 1938. The party will use its first majority in the House since 2006 to try to eliminate funding for parts of Obama’s health care bill opposed by business as well as curb regulations and government spending, Jay Timmons, executive vice president of the National Association of Manufacturers, a Washington-based lobbying group, said in an interview before the election.
“Americans voted for jobs and economic growth” and “resoundingly rejected” Democrats’ policies on taxes and regulation, Thomas Donohue, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the biggest business lobbying group, said in a statement last night.
Republicans also scored a net gain of at least six seats in the Senate, though Democrats retained control of that body.
The results will bolster Republican efforts to extend Bush- era tax cuts for those earning more than $250,000 and to defeat Obama’s proposals to increase taxes on companies’ overseas profits.
On health care, they are “really going to be pushing back on the regulations,” said Kim Monk, managing director at the investment advisory firm Capital Alpha Partners LLC in Washington. “There could be some serious blowback from a Republican Congress.”
Republicans also are likely to use their new leadership of House committees to tie up administration officials in hearings to explain and delay proposed rules on pesticides, ozone standards and mining, said Kenneth Green, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, a group critical of Environmental Protection Agency regulations.
The efforts may backfire, especially if Republicans carry out threats to subpoena members of the Obama administration and if their push to cut spending results in a government shutdown, said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, California.
“There will be a large number of new members who will press for a harder line,” Pitney said. “But the new members are like gasoline: they provide the fuel for the party but they are also very combustible and can provoke explosions.”
More-ambitious goals sought by some lawmakers and businesses, such as completely overturning Obama’s health-care overhaul, probably will remain out of reach for Republicans because of the Democratic majority in the Senate and Obama’s veto power.
High-profile objectives, such as repealing the health-care measure, won’t progress past “symbolic, messaging votes,” said Bruce Josten, the top lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber.
The Washington-based Chamber, which led the fight against Obama on health care and financial regulation and budgeted a record $75 million promoting pro-business candidates, says it hopes the acrimony of the election campaign can be put aside and Republicans can work with Obama to cut the deficit, promote nuclear power and energy efficiency, and pass long-stalled free trade agreements.
Other items may gain support from both the administration and Congress, such as scaling back business taxes imposed by the health-care bill, providing highway funding, creating renewable- energy standards and boosting nuclear power, he said.
“There is a potential here for some bipartisan movement,” Josten said.
The results of the election are positive for companies in pharmaceuticals, air-freight and financial services as well as restaurants, according to a report today by Thomas Lee, chief equity analyst at JPMorgan Chase & Co. in New York. Alternative- energy stocks such as First Solar Inc. and EnergySolutions Inc. may take a hit because the election makes less likely added government subsidies or legislation that would drive renewable- energy demand, Lee wrote in his report.
“We could start to see credit expansion next year as a result of extension of the Bush-era tax cuts,” Lee said on a conference call today. “This all argues for the markets to hit 1,300 by year end.”
The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index, which closed at the highest level since May 3 yesterday, rose 0.12 percent to 1195.52 at 3:01 p.m. New York time today.
“The Republican victory in the House means there will be an absolute halt to the Obama agenda,” Tom Block, founder of Tom Block Consults and the former head of government relations for JP Morgan, said on the call organized by Lee.
Following are assessments of what the new Congress means for selected industries and issues.
The election will put Republicans in charge of the House Financial Services Committee that Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank has headed since 2007. A Wall Street critic, Frank and Senator Christopher Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat who is retiring, wrote the law aimed at reining in abuses that they say contributed to the financial crisis. The legislation represents the biggest overhaul of financial regulations in more than seven decades.
Republicans’ new power gives them the ability to shape more than 240 rules that may be needed to implement the Dodd-Frank law, including regulations establishing the direction and independence of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Rulemaking by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission and other agencies on bank capital standards, derivatives and proprietary trading also will draw increased scrutiny.
“We don’t want them to regulate capriciously, arbitrarily, without engaging in a cost-benefit analysis,” Representative Jeb Hensarling, a Texas Republican on the financial services panel, said in an interview.
The regulatory oversight and ability to weaken rules may benefit banks including Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan and Bank of America, all of which lobbied against elements of the Dodd-Frank law, saying they would hurt profits.
On housing, Republicans including Hensarling say they want a free-market approach that would phase out federal support for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the mortgage companies taken over by the government after their losses soared.
A legislative stalemate may be fine with financial companies as well as investors, said Alison Williams, a Bloomberg Research analyst. “In general, investors just want gridlock so the government will be less of a threat,” she said.
House and Senate Republicans have written at least 30 bills that would roll back provisions of the health-care overhaul Obama signed into law in March.
Such efforts may help WellPoint and rival health insurers escape regulations on how much they spend on patient care and let Boston Scientific Corp. and other medical-device makers dodge $20 billion in tax increases over the next decade.
“You can literally open the bill and point your finger to a page and say, ‘Here’s something we should go after,’” said Representative Michael C. Burgess of Texas, a Republican who serves on the House Energy and Commerce health subcommittee. “It’s all bad.”
The Republicans’ push will force Democrats to vote on whether to defend the most controversial parts of the law, such as requiring insurance for all Americans, said Tom Scully, the former chief of the Medicare program under President George W. Bush.
Republicans also want to go after a requirement that businesses of all sizes report to the Internal Revenue Service any expenditures of more than $600, and they probably will target the budgets of agencies that are implementing the law.
The split Congress ensures there won’t be an outright repeal of the law that Republicans such as Representative John Boehner, who is in position to become the new speaker of the House, have called for, Scully said.
“Very little will happen in the next two years, but it will be a big political battle,” said Scully, senior counsel at the Washington office of Alston & Bird LLP.
House Republicans have pledged to cut $100 billion in domestic discretionary spending, the outlays set by Congress on a yearly basis that aren’t mandated by law.
Don’t look for them to take the ax to defense spending very soon, though.
Wary of the growing military might of China, Republicans are likely to be more aggressive in spending in ways that respond to that country’s capabilities in naval warfare, ballistic missiles and air power, even if the overall U.S. defense budget doesn’t increase.
“We have to look at the totality” of China’s efforts, said Representative Randy Forbes, a Virginia Republican who may become head of the House Armed Services Committee’s readiness subcommittee. Once lawmakers focus on the emerging challenges, they will agree on the need for “readiness capability,” he said.
That would entail devoting more money to weapons programs benefiting contractors making sea-based, anti-missile systems, such as Lockheed Martin Corp. and Raytheon Co., said Loren Thompson, defense analyst with the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia.
New Republican House defense leaders will also try to protect military contractors in lawmakers’ districts, Thompson said.
Representative Howard McKeon, a California Republican, is likely to become chairman of the Armed Services Committee. Bill Young, a Florida Republican, may head the panel of the Appropriations committee that approves defense spending.
Northrop Grumman was the top defense contractor in McKeon’s California district with contracts worth $1.01 billion in 2009, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Lockheed was second with $253.2 million.
General Dynamics was the largest defense contractor in Young’s Florida district, receiving $286.2 million, followed by Raytheon’s $221.8 million.
On energy policy, the first order of business for Republicans will be to block the Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to limit carbon emissions.
Congressional Democrats from coal-producing states have joined Republicans in seeking to stop or postpone EPA regulation of carbon emitted by power plants and factories. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has said Obama “would veto any attempt to take away authority here.”
The failure to pass his cap-and-trade measure, which would reduce carbon emissions and create a market in pollution allowances, may force Obama to take smaller steps to reshape U.S. energy policy. “We may end up having to do it in chunks, as opposed to some sort of comprehensive omnibus legislation,” the president said in an interview published in the Oct. 15 issue of Rolling Stone magazine.
Efforts to reach a compromise on energy legislation may focus on enacting national requirements for the use of non- polluting renewable energy.
Electricity producers such as NRG Energy Inc. may benefit as Republicans push to include nuclear power in such a standard along with the wind turbines and solar panels favored by environmentalists, said David Crane, chief executive officer of Princeton, New Jersey-based NRG.
Airlines such as United Continental Holdings Inc. and Delta Air Lines Inc. may gain from the shift in congressional power because Republicans oppose proposals to limit the outsourcing of maintenance work abroad and to subject global airline alliances to antitrust regulation.
House-approved legislation to finance the Federal Aviation Administration, still pending, would require drug testing and additional inspections at overseas maintenance centers used by U.S. carriers, potentially raising costs and making outsourcing less attractive to the airlines.
The legislation also would restrict global airline alliances by ending their exemption from antitrust prosecution after three years. Carriers such as AMR Corp.’s American Airlines and British Airways Plc, and Delta and Air France-KLM, use alliances to act as single entities in setting prices and schedules on international routes.
“The current Congress has been anti-airline,” William Swelbar, a research engineer specializing in air transport at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said in an interview. “There will be a new set of ears to listen to the industry.”
The shift in House lawmakers shaping transportation policy may benefit FedEx, operator of the world’s largest cargo airline, by ending Democratic efforts to ease union organizing at the company’s Express unit.
Rival United Parcel Service Inc. and the Teamsters Union backed the provision sponsored by Democratic Representative James Oberstar of Minnesota, chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, who was defeated in yesterday’s election.
Automakers such as Toyota Motor Corp. of Toyota City, Japan, which recalled 8 million vehicles in the past year, may face less scrutiny with the House Energy and Commerce Committee likely to be led by Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, said Michael Stanton, president of the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, a trade group based in Arlington, Virginia. The current committee chairman is Democratic Representative Henry Waxman of California, who led hearings into Toyota’s handling of the recalls.
Republican control of the House may provide the best chance to pass free-trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Panama since they were approved by President Bush in 2007. Obama has shied away from pushing the deals in Congress as drafted amid high unemployment and opposition from some fellow Democrats and labor unions.
“This is one area where Republicans and Democrats can work together,” said William Lane, government relations director for Caterpillar Inc., the world’s biggest construction-equipment maker, which favors free trade.
For companies such as Caterpillar, UPS, Boeing Co. and Citigroup Inc., getting the agreements passed would broaden access to markets abroad, with the South Korean deal alone boosting U.S. exports by $10.9 billion a year, according to the U.S. International Trade Commission.
Republican leaders such as Kentucky Republican Senator Mitch McConnell and Michigan Republican Dave Camp, positioned to be the incoming chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, say they want to help Obama get the pending trade deals approved.
“Under a Republican House leadership, if the president is serious about moving forward on trade, he will have a serious partner on Capitol Hill,” Texas Republican Kevin Brady, the likely chairman of the trade subcommittee of the Ways and Means Committee, said at a meeting in Washington Oct. 25. “We believe the three agreements are critical.”
The South Korean accord, the most important of the three pending pacts in volume of goods affected, may draw especially strong bipartisan support. “Korea has broader implications,” said Laura Lane, head of international government affairs at New York-based Citigroup, said in an interview.
With almost $68 billion in two-way trade, the deal would be the U.S.’s largest free-trade pact since the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 and may be critical to helping Obama meet his goal of doubling American exports in five years.
International Business Machines Corp., Microsoft Corp., Blackstone Group LP and Occidental Petroleum Corp. all have lobbied against the Obama proposals to increase taxes on overseas profits. The election gives them some important allies.
“Republicans have pretty much staked their claim that they’re not going to raise taxes,” said John Feehery, who was an adviser to former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, the last Republican to hold that top post. “Republicans are much more cognizant and care more about the financial impact of these taxes on jobs.”
Republican control of the House may make it impossible for Obama to succeed in his bid to boost taxes on profits companies make overseas. And the gridlock that may result from a divided legislature would also stave off separate changes proposed by the administration that would cost oil companies, including Occidental, tens of billions more a year by raising taxes on their non-U.S. operations.
“The punitive-type tax changes against the energy industry will be much more difficult to pass with Republicans in charge of the House,” said Gerald McPhee, senior vice president of federal relations at Los Angeles-based Occidental, the fourth- largest U.S. oil company by market value.
The Republican victory also may allow private-equity firms, such as New York-based Blackstone, to kill a four-year effort by congressional Democrats to raise taxes on the incentive pay earned by their executives known as carried interest.
Besides blocking prospective increases, businesses may find a ripe political environment for getting some long-sought tax benefits through Congress. Companies such as San Jose, California-based Cisco Systems Inc. may find new support for a temporary tax holiday on their foreign earnings that was rejected by the Senate in 2009.
Businesses “are not going to be seen as a pool of funds to be pillaged by Congress anymore,” said Curtis Dubay, a senior tax policy analyst at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, a research institution that often sides with Republicans on tax issues.
Immigration is one area where the Republican ascendency may prove disappointing to some companies, including Intel Corp. and Hilton Worldwide Inc. They want to increase the flow of legal foreign workers through changes to immigration law.
Republican lawmakers, who will lead the debate on the issue in the House, plan to focus on border security and cracking down on illegal immigration first. They say they will consider the measures sought by business only after fewer illegal immigrants are coming across the U.S.-Mexico border.
Representative Steve King, an Iowa Republican slated to head the House Judiciary subcommittee on immigration policy, says he opposes lifting visa caps for lower-skilled foreign workers because that would depress U.S. worker wages. He would support increasing visas for higher-skilled workers only if they meet criteria to boost the U.S. economy.
That means they should be young, well-educated and able to speak English, King said. “That’s the indicator of whether they can assimilate into the broader society.”
Intel and other technology companies such as EBay Inc. and Cognizant Technology Solutions Corp. want Congress to lift the cap on H-1B visas for skilled workers. The annual limit has been 65,000 since 2004, after expiration of a temporary increase from 2001 to 2003 that raised the cap to 195,000. In fiscal 2010, the cap was reached in nine months.
Companies also want to lift the 140,000 limit on employment-based green cards that prove permanent residency.
At Intel, about 6.5 percent of 40,000 workers in the U.S. are in the country on temporary visas. The company helps those workers apply immediately for green cards, said Peter Muller, director of government relations. “We want to keep them, ideally for their entire career,” he said.
The restaurant and hotel industries need more seasonal, lower-skilled workers. Jonas Neihardt, a Hilton lobbyist, is pushing for a simpler system to verify the legal status of workers and a boost in H-2B visas for non-farm seasonal employees, now capped at 66,000.
“We’re anticipating when things get better we’ll need more of those types of workers,” Neihardt said.
Corporations say they hope the importance of the Latino vote in the 2012 presidential elections will cause congressional Republican leaders to support a broad bill.
“It will be an uphill battle, but it could be that the Republicans would see that it’s to their advantage to get this issue behind them,” said Randy Johnson, vice president for labor policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Organized labor faces tougher times on Capitol Hill.
“The election profoundly reshapes labor’s agenda,” said Harley Shaiken, a professor of labor relations at University of California at Berkeley.
Unions face little chance of achieving legislative goals envisioned from a Democratic-majority Congress, such as easier organizing rules, mandatory paid sick leave, and bigger fines for workplace safety violations, he said.
Labor leaders are now likely to scale back their legislative ambitions and increase efforts to make gains through regulatory agencies. Unions may still have enough supporters to make it difficult for business to achieve anti-union legislation, particularly in the Senate.
“On labor issues, it’s going to be very difficult to move the ball in either direction,” said Glenn Spencer, who handles labor matters at the Chamber of Commerce.
The biggest short-term impact may be for unions representing construction-trades and public-sector workers. Republicans have generally opposed union-backed federal stimulus spending, such as measures that created construction jobs and saved jobs of teachers, police officers and other public-sector workers.
Organized labor is counting on Obama to use his veto power should anti-union legislation emerge from Congress.
“As hard as the Republicans might try, it’s doubtful legislation attacking workers’ rights would make it to the White House,” said Bill Samuel, the top lobbyist for the AFL-CIO labor federation. “And if it did, I can’t foresee a situation where President Obama would sign it.”
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