As paralysis in Congress brought the U.S. to the brink of a government shutdown late last year, Starbucks Corp. Chief Executive Officer Howard Schultz let loose a corporate primal scream.
In an open letter, he accused members of Congress of putting “partisan and ideological purity over the well-being of the people,” and urged that they be punished. He pointed out, rightly, that the deterioration of our political system is at least partly caused by the ever-expanding election cycle and the treadmill of fundraising. And, in a laudable and rare effort to combine deeds with words, he vowed to cease all campaign donations and urged business leaders and voters to do the same.
More than 100 senior executives -- including AOL Inc. CEO Tim Armstrong, Nucor Corp. CEO Dan DiMicco and Nasdaq OMX Group Inc. CEO Robert Greifeld -- have signed on. Yet their effort doesn’t go far enough. By taking their marbles and going home, Schultz and his colleagues are unlikely to disrupt the partisan toxicity that pervades our politics. Recent Supreme Court decisions ensure that any effort to meaningfully restrict the flow of money into politics would require a constitutional amendment. By disengaging from political giving, corporate pragmatists only increase the peril faced by politicians with the courage to collaborate.
There is a better way for these leaders to use their checkbooks to bring about change and create real incentives that reward and protect members of Congress who work across the aisle.
Imagine if Schultz and his “Upward Spiral” CEOs coordinated contributions to reward specific acts of collaboration. One place to look would be the debt-focused, bipartisan “Gang of Six” led by Senators Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, and Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican, which has been steadfast in the effort to sustain a beachhead of collaboration after the so-called supercommittee of lawmakers failed to agree on a deficit-reduction plan in November.
There are other examples: Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, and Representative Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, recently led a successful effort on patent-reform legislation. Senators Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, and Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican, championed a unanimously approved amendment to the annual defense authorization bill imposing sanctions on Iran’s central bank. Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, a fiscal conservative, should be acknowledged for voting to support the Simpson-Bowles deficit-reduction package, a move that earned him the wrath of anti-tax ideologues.
Equally notable was a rare compromise between Senators Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, and James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, who traveled from the outer edges of their caucuses to agree on a two-year transportation bill that includes funding for highways and provisions to alleviate congestion and air pollution.
To have a meaningful effect, the praise and contributions of CEOs must not be directed principally toward the few remaining congressional “centrists.” The reality of our electoral system guarantees that Congress will be dominated by partisans for the foreseeable future. The goal must be to reward these members when they find ways to collaborate that are consistent with their values.
If all “Upward Spiral” executives simultaneously donated the maximum, each of these candidates would have an additional $250,000 in their campaign coffers. Beyond financial support, there is also a great need for corporate leaders to engage intellectually in diverse and politically active coalitions to promote broad-based, substantive and political solutions.
In the current toxic environment, public disillusionment leads to disengagement that further undermines our ability to solve any of the real problems we face. Our nation’s CEOs possess the rational self-interest and means to change this dynamic. By combining policy insight with strategic financial contributions, business leaders can provide much needed support to the elected officials most capable of making a difference.
(Jason S. Grumet is president of the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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