Why Business Is Holding Its Fire

Corporate America pins its plans on a Bush Administration

Despite his blue-chip lineage, Republican front-runner George W. Bush has never styled himself as a champion of the boardroom set. Bush wants to cut tax rates proportionately more for the bottom brackets, and he omits traditional business goodies such as reductions in corporate rates and lower capital-gains taxes. On the campaign trail, the Texas governor vows to bring millions of struggling workers into the ranks of the middle class.

But in Washington, where business lobbyists like their steaks rare, their martinis big, and their loafers tasseled, Bush's populist paeans are taken with an indulgent wink. After enduring seven years--going on eternity--under the activist Clinton Administration, corporate reps are gaga over a possible Bush Presidency. Lobbyists hope the Texan will reduce regulatory pressure on a wide swath of American business--from Detroit's SUV-happy carmakers to drug companies feeling the heat over soaring prices and gun manufacturers facing new calls for controls.

Bush, of course, won't even be nominated until Aug. 2. And he faces a bruising contest in the fall. But that hasn't kept some lobbyists from slowing negotiations with lame-duck Clintonites to a crawl. A few concede the obvious: They hope to delay key decisions until after Election Day or, failing that, push for a rollback of regulations--perhaps in the guise of a one-year freeze.

Case in point: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which objects to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration's plan to impose costly (estimates run from $4.5 billion to $18 billion) ergonomic rules designed to protect office workers from computer-related injuries. "OSHA is rushing to get this done" before November, says Chamber Vice-President Randel K. Johnson. "Our strategy, frankly, is to stretch the rulemaking into the next Administration."

Call it the "Waiting for George" effect. "It's not unique for decision-making to slow in anticipation of a transfer of power," notes Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution scholar. "What's unusual here is the intensity. While Bill Clinton is still full of energy and trying to do things, everything--from [control of] the White House, the House of Representatives, and the judiciary--is in play. It makes everyone say, `Let's wait and see."'

Craig McDonald, executive director of Texans for Public Justice, a liberal watchdog group in Austin, figures that corporate types are smart to cool their heels. "If it's the interests of business--versus consumers, workers, or the environment--Bush consistently sides with his business donors. If he is elected, it'll be a field day for business."

Asked about the budding Waiting for George phenomenon during a May 11 interview, Bush seemed bemused. "If they're interested in somebody to be fair and balanced, fine. I'm not going to politicize decisions." But, he cautioned, "people shouldn't put too much hope in me until they know what I believe."

That hasn't stopped companies from angling for a better deal from Bush. Microsoft Corp., facing a possible breakup, seems to be pursuing a legal strategy that stretches resolution of its case well into a succeeding Administration. Microsoft reps deny this amounts to a Waiting for George stall. But others note that Bush seems partial to a narrow view of antitrust enforcement based on abuses of pricing power and harm to consumers. That's a long way from the Justice Dept.'s theory that Microsoft stifles innovation.

"They may be waiting, but they don't know Bush," says an adviser. "On antitrust, he is a populist, and he doesn't like bigness. He has made no decisions about Microsoft."

"PRAYING." Who else is counting the days till Nov. 7? Detroit, for sure. Carmakers are "not just waiting for George," chuckles one lobbyist. "They're praying for George." It's not hard to see why. Gore calls for eliminating the internal combustion engine and is a fan of corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) guidelines, which keep auto makers from selling too many gas-guzzlers. "Detroit feels the standards weren't written with enough industry input and were mainly done to appease environmentalists," says lobbyist Robert S. Walker, who represents General Motors Corp.

Carmakers also feel pressure over sport-utility vehicles. Clinton regulators want improved mileage and lower SUV bumpers to protect drivers of smaller vehicles. Industry leaders feel that changes are inevitable but reckon that compliance costs might be lower under Bush. "It's in the Bush tradition to work these things out," says Walker. "The Clinton people prefer confrontation."

Smokestack industries that have problems complying with Environmental Protection Agency emissions standards are also pining for a more measured policy. This summer, the EPA hopes to finalize new regs that require states to develop pollution benchmarks for all of the 40,000 major waterways in the country. Development moratoriums of up to 15 years could be imposed unless states comply. The EPA claims the requirement would cost less than $100 million; industry says the tab is more like $8 billion to $12 billion. Says U.S. Chamber Vice-President William L. Kovacs: "We have a legislative effort to try to get this thing put on hold until the EPA does a cost-benefit analysis. Bush would at least give us due process."

Drugmakers who are trying to fend off calls for a prescription-drug benefit for seniors view the coming of George as a sort of regulatory Prozac. Under most plans, Uncle Sam would become a major buyer of medicines and could negotiate discounts. "There is angst over the fact that Clinton has taken the industry to the woodshed," says one lobbyist. "The ministration that's stalling to make gun control a campaign issue. Gun-control advocates say the other side is digging in its heels. "Would a Bush Presidency be positive for our industry?" asks Robert T. Delfay, president of the National Shooting Sports Foundation. "Compared to Gore, absolutely." In reality, gunmakers and Big Tobacco face a tidal wave of lawsuits brought by states, and even a GOP President could provide only limited assistance.

According to one lobbying pro, the idea that it's better to wait for George than deal now may owe more to emotion than cold-eyed calculation. "At this point in 1988, Michael Dukakis was 17% ahead of another George Bush," he notes. "What if Republicans wind up losing the Presidency and the House? This Waiting for George feeling is a huge risk for business."

Risky? Perhaps. But don't try telling that to the capital's giddy corporate reps. Right now, the lords of lobbying are busy planning for a brighter future while repeating a trenchant line from Gone with the Wind: "Tomorrow is another day."

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.