Why Business Is Wary Of Volunteerism

What do you do if you're a Big Government activist but don't have the money--or the political juice with Congress--to attack such problems as pollution, joblessness, and illiteracy? If you're Bill Clinton, you use your Presidential clout to lean on business to foot the bill for patching the social safety net. "We have to use the bully pulpit to generate enthusiasm for things government can no longer do," says White House Chief of Staff Erskine B. Bowles.

That message plays well with CEOs, who say they're ready and willing to heed Clinton's call for greater corporate activism in areas such as educational standards, welfare reform, and urban renewal. But execs--long suspicious of the Administration's regulatory zeal--aren't blindly embracing Clinton's agenda. Their fear: the White House push for voluntary action will give way to mandates that force business to pick up the tab for such Administration policy objectives as safer streets and cleaner air and water. "It could cost billions each year" to meet new federal mandates, gripes Susan Eckerly of the National Federation of Independent Business.

CAUTIOUS FOLLOWERS. For now, the President is emphasizing the voluntary approach. He has invited CEOs to the White House to discuss their plans to hire ex-welfare recipients. He has prevailed upon broadcasters to give millions in air time for an antidrug crusade. And he has asked high-tech companies to donate equipment and expertise to wire schools to the Internet. "It's up to companies to step in and pick up some of the slack," says David Filo, co-founder of Yahoo! Inc., an Internet-search company.

That's just the sense of civic responsibility Clinton hopes to spark on Apr. 27 when he kicks off a three-day summit on volunteerism in Philadelphia. Lured by the star power of conference co-host Colin L. Powell, hundreds of companies will show their commitment to social renewal.

Sometimes Clinton goes beyond jawboning. Consider his "microenterprise" program. Last year, it awarded $36 million in seed money and technical aid to banks and community-development groups in poor cities and rural areas. The expected payoff: $350 million in lending to small businesses. "In a time of fiscal constraint, we do what a prudent manager would do: find things that work and don't cost a lot," says program administrator Kirsten S. Moy.

In other cases, the President is issuing executive orders to the government that he hopes the private sector will copy. One example: granting federal workers unpaid leave to attend parent/teacher conferences and their kids' medical checkups. Companies, fearful that a voluntary program will turn into a federal directive, aren't scrambling to follow the President's lead.

Indeed, despite the Administration's rhetoric about volunteerism, Clintonites continue to quietly push costly mandates on business, corporate reps complain. Among the controversial initiatives: draft rules that require companies to protect workers from crime on the job, such as by improving lighting and landscaping and having more than one employee on a late shift. Business lobbyists say police--not employers--should be responsible.

Environmental mandates are a sore subject, too. On Apr. 22, the Administration issued regulations that would require 6,100 additional plants to report toxins they release. Such mandates may eventually "mean higher prices for consumers and lower wages for workers," says Karen Kerrigan, head of a small-business coalition.

Such concerns are keeping some executives from rallying behind Clinton's bully-pulpit approach. They don't mind his putting the arm on them--they just worry the other arm may wind up in their pockets.

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