- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 6, 2000

High-flying corporate chief executive officers seldom dirty their hands with grass-roots organizing. But the Business Roundtable (BRT) 2 and 1/2 years ago wagered millions of dollars that it could play that game to help pass trade legislation.

And when the House passed a bill to expand commercial ties with China, its risky gamble paid off. Once the Senate signs off on the bill, as is widely expected, the BRT will be poised to help shape the debate on trade policy and other corporate priorities for years to come.

The BRT decision, in late 1997, came against the backdrop of a major defeat at the hands of organized labor a few months earlier. Union-led opposition had convinced Congress to deny the president "fast-track" authority to negotiate new trade agreements, and labor was spoiling for other opportunities to stall free-trade policies.

But in the wake of a decisive 237-197 victory in the House on May 24, even members of Congress who have criticized business groups for not caring enough about trade legislation are tipping their hats to the CEOs.

"Trade is now a central feature of the business community's lobbying effort, and there's no doubt that the BRT has played a big role in that," said Rep. Robert T. Matsui, the California Democrat who helped lead the fight for the China bill.

For their part, the CEOs have learned the lesson that good lobbyists and paid advertisements are not enough. People who benefit from trade have to be heard where a member of Congress listens most carefully: at home.

"The squeaky wheel gets the grease," BRT President Samuel Maury said. "Those who oppose trade had been squeaky [in 1997], and those who benefit from it had been silent."

The BRT, which draws its strength from the direct involvement of roughly 200 CEOs, decided in early 1998 to triple its dues to finance grass-roots activities. That move, a dangerous one for a trade association that wants to keep its members, boosted the BRT's yearly budget from a respectable $9 million to a formidable $27 million.

It cost the BRT some high-profile defections. IBM Corp., Hewlett-Packard and a handful of other companies decided they would rather put the money elsewhere, industry lobbyists said. But the then-chairman of Caterpillar, Donald Fites, along with other key CEOs like Joe Gorman of TRW Inc. and Philip Condit of the Boeing Co., made the decision stick.

The BRT did not neglect other, more traditional avenues of political advocacy. BRT member companies have poured more than $58 million into election campaigns this year, and House members who supported the China trade bill netted an average of $44,000 each, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

But, as members, lobbyists and even opponents admit, corporate America helped win the China vote chiefly by engaging in the political equivalent of hand-to-hand combat.

The dues increase represented a major shift. Before the move, lobbyists said, the BRT typically would go "tin-cupping" to its members for each trade vote to raise money for an ad hoc organization. The process was time-intensive, ill-suited to a long-term strategy, and compared miserably with organized labor, which can fight a political ground war on a moment's notice.

"Now, it's like a fire engine they can roll it out quickly when it's needed," Mr. Matsui said. "They don't have to reinvent the wheel for each trade bill."

In early 1998, the BRT set up a ground organization in 12 congressional districts, according to BRT officials. Beginning with studies that documented the importance of trade to local economies, "goTRADE," as the BRT network became known, laid the intellectual foundations for the campaign.

Then, copying a tactic directly from organized labor, the BRT hired paid organizers who took responsibility for individual districts. These organizers worked to generate interest among local firms, some of whom were suppliers to BRT companies or members of the Chamber of Commerce, and persuaded them to contact their members of Congress and talk about the value of trade, even if no legislation was pending.

"We have tried to connect people who know trade to the people who make decisions about trade," said Greg Rideout, a BRT organizer based in Raleigh, N.C.

Many BRT companies have tried to involve their employees in Washington lobbying, a pseudo-grass-roots tactic that labor and environmental groups ridicule as "Astroturf." But goTRADE, Mr. Rideout notes, brought local people fluent in the business of international trade non-Fortune 500 company owners, academics and economic-development officials into the national political process.

Mr. Rideout started by focusing on the districts of two Democrats, who typically have been the key swing group in trade votes, and the work paid off. Reps. Bob Etheridge and David E. Price, North Carolina Democrats, ultimately voted for the China bill.

The BRT took the goTRADE network out for a dry run last summer, when President Clinton renewed China's trade status, an annual ritual that the current bill would abolish. It introduced a series of television ads and stepped up lobbying at the grass roots.

By the beginning of this year, the BRT network was ready to come out fighting, and its $4 million dollar advertising campaign was only the beginning. But with an organized presence that had reached 88 congressional districts in 19 states, the BRT had a formidable force in the field that could do what its congressional allies always demanded: make the case back home.

"Our TV ads were good, but they didn't win this battle," said Christopher Padilla, a lobbyist for Eastman Kodak Co.

The BRT now is focused on winning the China vote in the Senate, but privately its members are looking toward the next big trade vote, which most likely will be "fast track," in the next administration. The CEOs will meet in Washington to review strategy, but few expect them to abandon the formula that helped win the China fight.

"This is something we have to do for the long haul," said Shirley Hales, a lobbyist for TRW.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide