Dimon's Challenge: Making a Staid CEO Club a Lobbying Power

  • JPMorgan leader takes on chairman role at Business Roundtable
  • He wants group to capitalize on Trump’s pro-business agenda

Dimon Aims to Make Business Roundtable a Lobbying Power

Jamie Dimon is trying to transform what has long been seen as a sleepy Washington club for CEOs into a lobbying powerhouse.

The JPMorgan Chase & Co. chief executive officer took on a new role in January as chairman of the Business Roundtable, a group of 200 corporate leaders. He is quickly shaking things up at the venerable trade association, looking to capitalize on the Trump administration’s pro-business agenda.

Jamie Dimon

Photographer: Christophe Morin/Bloomberg

To spearhead the effort, Dimon has hired Joshua Bolten, a former White House chief of staff to President George W. Bush, as the roundtable’s president. Dimon has also set an advocacy agenda focused on just three priorities: tax legislation, regulatory reform and infrastructure spending.

“I’m a patriot, I want to make this country better off,” Dimon said in an interview. “Public policy is an area where we haven’t been doing a great job. Instead of Republicans and Democrats finger-pointing, let’s get involved, let’s talk about solutions.”

Not Easy

This week, the roundtable is scheduled to hold its first meeting in Washington since Dimon took over. The members will meet with lawmakers and Trump administration officials, including Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney.

It may not be easy for Dimon to revitalize the roundtable, whose members include the heads of companies ranging from 3M Co. to General Electric Co. to Visa Inc.

Though the association’s CEO-only membership gives it heft, the executives have often struggled to reach a consensus on key issues. The current debate over whether Congress should impose a border tax on imports, as well as a tax break on exports, is a case in point because it has pitted retailers against manufacturers.

In addition, the roundtable hasn’t in the past been known for engaging in bare-knuckled legislative fights. It doesn’t have a political action committee to direct contributions to lawmakers, nor does it endorse candidates. Both are time-tested ways to ensure lobbying results, and have been used to great success by other big business trade groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Companies Vilified

Still, Dimon said he and his fellow executives see an opportunity that was hardly worth pursuing during Barack Obama’s presidency.

“We have not been hearing about a growth agenda for the last eight years at all,” Dimon said.

Other executives appear to share the view that the business climate is improving. On Tuesday, the roundtable released a quarterly economic survey of 141 CEOs, showing their expectations for sales and hiring over the next six months have surged.

Dimon has embraced much of Donald Trump’s economic message and is a member of the president’s business advisory council. The long-time Democrat has said he grew frustrated about what he considered anti-business and anti-Wall street views that began to dominate the party under Obama. Dimon more recently has called himself barely a Democrat.

While Trump has regularly invited executives to the White House and populated his administration with Wall Street titans, some lobbyists question how long the friendly behavior toward corporations will last.

‘Populist Edge’

“This president wants to be pro-business, but he has this populist edge to him,” said Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman who is now a partner at Mercury, a public affairs firm in Washington. That makes the roundtable’s role “more important” though also “more complicated,” he added.

Bolten’s hiring has also surprised some conservatives, who say his anti-Trump statements during the presidential campaign could damage his influence, especially at the White House.

In a widely circulated letter last year, Bolten urged alumni of the Bush administration to vote against Trump, saying the real estate mogul was unfit “for the office our former boss held with such distinction.”

“That was then, this is now,” Bolten said. “I’m excited about the opportunity generated by the Trump administration and Republican Congress for enactment of hugely beneficial pro-growth policies.”

Tax Fight

The first big test of the roundtable’s reboot is likely to come as Congress considers an overhaul of the tax system. To fund a cut to the corporate tax rate, House Speaker Paul Ryan has proposed taxing companies’ income from imports and domestic sales.

Senate Republicans have expressed little enthusiasm for the proposal, and they appear to be waiting for the White House, which has flirted with the concept despite Trump calling it “too complicated.”

The roundtable hasn’t taken a position on the border tax. Bolten and Dimon say that is by design.

One of Dimon’s first directives to members was to leave “parochial interests” aside and work for the good of the U.S. business community -- and the country. So, if a company wants to lobby on individual aspects of the tax bill, it is free to do so. The roundtable will engage at a broader level, working to make sure corporate tax cuts get across the finish line.

Adding Members

The message, Bolten said, is “look at the end product and not the individual issues that are most beneficial and most damaging issues to your company.” CEOs “have to take that long view,” he said.

At Dimon’s request, the roundtable is overhauling its communications and government relations teams. The aim is to trim its roster of outside consultants and bolster its in-house expertise. Several JPMorgan employees are helping direct the effort.

Dimon is also on the lookout for new members, actively recruiting executives from large, well-known companies. Several are expected to be added this week. Ultimately, he argues that what is good for business is good for the economy and for the American people, as well.

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“You are not going to solve the toughest problems of this nation with government alone,” Dimon said. “You are just not going to get it done the right way without getting business involved.”

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