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美国商界缺席债务上限之争

Tory Newmyer 2011年08月01日

美国商界游说团在最后关头也加入了这场有关债务上限的辩论,尽管债务违约与美国商界利益攸关,但他们这次除了呜咽失声之外,别无行动。

    如果说债务违约的幽灵已使美国企业界胆战心惊,那么仅凭过去几周他们在华盛顿的雇佣军的所作所为上,却很难看出这一点。

    规模庞大的商界游说团纷纷致信国会,敦促其有所作为,但在党派僵局就债务上限危机愈演愈烈之时,他们却大都选择了袖手旁观。鉴于五天之后(8月2日——译注)财政部就会宣布无钱支付政府账单,这一情况似乎有望得到改观。

    上周四,众议院计划对议长约翰•博纳(共和党,俄亥俄州)提高债务上限的提案进行投票表决,重创之下的行业协会终于站出身来,敦促各大企业联合支持这一提案。上周三晚,包括美国商会(U.S. Chamber of Commerce)、美国全国制造商协会(National Association of Manufacturers)、美国商业圆桌会议(Business Roundtable)和美国国家家庭住宅建筑协会(National Association of Home Builders)在内的商界代表联合签署了致国会议员的一封信,表示支持提高债限的提案。商界代表的官员这次表示,他们将协调一致、积极游说,大力促使胆战心惊的众议院共和党会议通过这一提案。

    但考虑到利害得失,华盛顿各界商业人士一致认为债务违约将导致灾难性后果——商界游说团之前并未采取有力行动,这甚至令不少K街(美国首都华盛顿特区的一个街区,聚集着大量的智库和游说团体——译注)游说行家一筹莫展。其中一位表示:“从他们(商界游说团)传达的讯息和游说行动来看,这次真是一反常态的安静。这是一种极简主义方式,而在我的预期中,商界的呼声应该更加响亮。”

    商界代表们立刻反驳了这一说法。以商会为例,它倾注了数月时间组织游说团拜访那些持怀疑态度的国会议员,向他们阐明违约的严重性。美国全国制造商协会税务及国内经济政策副主席多罗茜•科尔曼则称,他们“已就该问题探讨了近一年的时间”。然而,与他们动辄为教会事业捐助数千万的善款相比,他们在这方面的努力可谓微乎其微。

债务违约,将信将疑

    商界迟迟未能发起协调一致的游说行动以拉响警报,背后有诸多原因。

    在很大程度上,他们认为议会能够自行找到解决办法,在债务违约风险真正逼近之前延长联邦政府的借款授权。德克萨斯州前民主党众议员肯•本森正在为证券行业和金融市场协会(Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association)进行游说工作,他表示该协会上周才开始请公司会员关注债务上限违约问题。他说:“难以想象如果真的违约会是怎样,我们的公司会员才刚刚意识到这一点——如果再不采取行动,违约或将成为现实。”

    无独有偶,三年前也发生过类似情况。当时,众议院未能通过华尔街救市方案,这一结果令之前志在必得的商界游说团一片哗然,一位银行业的说客甚至将这一失利称之为一场“无聚首、超驱动的闪电战”。

    他说:“我们都期待通过这一方案,当结果不如人意时,我们挺身而出。”以美国商会、美国全国制造商协会、金融服务业圆桌会议(Financial Services Roundtable)和美国商业圆桌会议为代表的公司首脑全都参与到行动中来,联合布什政府及国会领袖,通过对摇摆不定的国会议员施加压力,以争取更多的赞成票。美国商业圆桌会议的乔安娜•施耐德称:“行动力度之大异乎寻常。我们每天都与财政部部长保尔森会谈,我们的公司首脑每天都与他进行电话会议,我们还大力动员所有公司首脑、特别是拥有大规模就业中心的公司首脑进行电话游说。”

    主要商会的说客们称,这一次,他们到目前为止之所以仍然袖手旁观事出有因。几位说客表示,直至本周,并未出台任何具体可信的提案发动他们助力债限之争。照理,缺乏明确的理发提案并不会影响商界提供资金支持,比如发起宣传活动,向投票人阐明利害关系等。此类活动并不鲜见。

    但问题是,使大财团们缄默不言的最大动因是什么:恐惧最终不利的债限方案会通过立法。只要政府依然将增税作为减赤手段,那么自身利益岌岌可危的行业仍希望保留反对的权利。

    实际上,问题并不在于商界未就债限问题进行积极游说。据阳光基金会(Sunlight Foundation)就信息披露发布的一则评论称,从四月至六月,记录在案的有140多个团体就债限问题开展过游说活动。其中绝大多数都集中于保住有限的税收优惠,甚或寻求新的减税举措。据记录,蓝十字-蓝盾(Blue Cross Blue Shield)、甲骨文(Oracle)(ORCL)、埃克森美孚(Exxon Mobil)(XOM)、美国辉瑞(Pfizer)(PFE)、德文能源(Devon Energy)(DVN)、诺斯洛普•格鲁门(Northrop Grumman)(NOC)以及沃尔玛(Wal-Mart)(WMT)等公司至少都跟踪过债限谈判的进展。毫无疑问,有些公司的危机感更强。鉴于奥巴马总统不止一次指责共和党为了保护公务航空公司的减税政策而牺牲老年人和中等收入者的利益,美国国家公务航空协会(National Business Aviation Association)就曾发起行动,捍卫这一政策规定,称航空业堪称就业大户。

    阳光基金会的比尔•阿利森表示:“只要不能利益共享,他们就会有所行动。”

    或者正如共和党形容K街那些权力玩家的投资那样:“他们绝对没有真正付出过努力,没有花过一分一厘。因为他们怯懦胆小。他们之所以袖手旁观完全是因为担心枪打出头鸟。”

    债限方案可能不会考虑对权益项目和税法进行任何直接修改,如今情势已经明朗,是大财团们的介入之时。没有什么比即将到来的经济大决战更能吸引他们的关注了。但好了伤疤忘了痛,大财团的说客们会以更好地服务于国家经济经济大局知名故伎重演,极力要求享受特殊待遇。到时值得回味的是:当初债务危机危及国家经济命脉之时,他们为何未能看清其特殊利益所在。

    If the specter of a default has spooked corporate America, you wouldn't know it by watching their hired guns in Washington over the last several weeks.

    Aside from sending a handful of letters urging Congress to act, the big business lobby has mostly hugged the sidelines as the partisan standoff over the debt limit crisis intensified. That appears poised to change, now that there are only five days to go until the Treasury Department says it will run out of money to pay all the federal government's bills.

    With Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) set to put his plan for a debt ceiling hike to a vote in the House today, the heaviest-hitting trade associations are finally piping up and urging their member companies to rally behind the proposal. On Wednesday evening, a broad collective of those groups -- including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, the Business Roundtable, and the National Association of Home Builders -- cosigned a letter to Members of Congress endorsing the plan. And officials with those groups said this time, they will be following up with an aggressive, coordinated lobbying effort to try to muscle the package through a jumpy House Republican conference.

    But considering the stakes -- business types in Washington agree a default would be calamitous -- the failure of the business lobby to engage more forcefully earlier has even some veteran K Street hands scratching their heads. "If you look at the totality of the communications and the lobbying efforts, this has been uncharacteristically quiet," says one. "It's been a minimalist approach, and I'd have expected the business community to be much more vocal."

    Representatives of the groups are quick to dispel that point. The Chamber, for example, has spent months organizing lobbying visits to skeptical lawmakers to explain the gravity of the threat. And NAM has been "talking about this issue for almost a year," says Dorothy Coleman, the group's vice president of tax and domestic economic policy. But the commitment barely registers against the eight-figure sums the groups regularly dole out for more parochial causes.

Doubting a default

    There have been at least a few factors at work keeping big business groups from mounting a concerted campaign to sound the alarm.

    For the most part, they've rested on the assumption that Congress would figure out on its own how to extend the federal government's borrowing authority without seriously flirting with default. Ken Bentsen, a former Democratic Congressman from Texas now lobbying for the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, said his group only started asking member companies to focus on the issue last week. "It's unthinkable you'd really default, and our members are just coming to grips with the fact that if we don't act, this could really happen," he says.

    There was a similar dynamic three years ago, when the stunning failure in the House of the first attempt to pass the Wall Street bailout sent a relatively complacent business lobby into what one banking lobbyist called a "no-huddle hyper-drive blitzkrieg."

    "We all expected that to pass, too, and when it didn't, we lit it up," this lobbyist said. The Chamber, NAM, the Financial Services Roundtable, and the BRT, which represents top CEOs, all got in on the act, launching a cooperative push with the Bush administration and Congressional leaders to round up votes, in part by generating constituent pressure on wobbly lawmakers. "The effort was extraordinary," says Joanna Schneider, of the BRT. "We talked to Secretary Paulson every day, we had CEO conference calls with the Secretary every day, and we made a massive effort for all the CEOs, particularly where they had large employment centers, to make calls."

    Lobbyists for the major trade groups point to other reasons they've taken a largely hands-off approach so far. Several noted that until this week, there was no specific, credible proposal for them to help push. Presumably, the lack of legislative text wouldn't prevent the groups from bankrolling, say, a major advertising campaign to educate voters about the stakes. Those types of campaigns are hardly uncommon.

    But the argument points to what has been perhaps the most powerful motivator in keeping big business mum: fear of what could end up in whatever package makes it into law. As long as tax hikes remained on the table as a means of trimming the deficit, industries that could see their bottom lines bitten wanted to reserve the right to object.

    Indeed, it's not that there's been no active lobbying on the debt ceiling by corporate interests. From April through June, more than 140 outfits reported lobbying work on the issue, according to a review of disclosure reports by the Sunlight Foundation. The vast majority appears to have engaged to protect narrow tax privileges, or even seek new breaks. Blue Cross Blue Shield, Oracle (ORCL), Exxon Mobil (XOM), Pfizer (PFE), Devon Energy (DVN), Northrop Grumman (NOC), and Wal-Mart (WMT) all reported at least monitoring the talks. Some no doubt felt more threatened than others. With President Obama making a refrain of the charge that Republicans want to protect a tax break for corporate jet owners at the expense of seniors and middle-income earners, the National Business Aviation Association launched an effort to defend the provision as a job-creator.

    "They're all for shared sacrifice as long as they're not the ones sharing," says Bill Allison of the Sunlight Foundation.

    Or, as one Republican lobbyist describes the investment by K Street's power-players: "They couldn't have done less if they tried, spent zero dollars and no cents. And it's because they're gutless. They've not done anything because they don't want to pop their heads above ground and get their heads taken off."

    With any direct changes to entitlement programs and the tax code likely to be left out of the package, the coast is now clear for the big business groups to jump in. And there's nothing like an impending economic Armageddon to marshal their focus. But when this scare subsides, and the big business lobbies go back to pressing for specialized treatment under the guise it serves a greater economic good, it will be worth remembering where these special interests stood when that cause was imperiled.

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