A new Congress, the 114th in U.S. history, won’t make 2015 a happy new year for American manufacturers.
There are at least two significant reasons. One involves the drama—you choose whether to call it comedy or tragedy—of partisan politics. The other is the fact that American manufacturers have never been of one mind and one voice—not from the first days of the republic. Not now.
Start-up enterprises have different priorities from established firms. Multinationals have different priorities from domestic companies. Some manufacturers focus on established markets. Others direct their attention to emerging markets. Many manufacturers are publicly traded companies. Others are privately held.
American manufacturers have never been of one mind and one voice—not from the first days of the republic. Not now.
The list goes on, and as it lengthens, it can get rather complex. Consider, for example, a domestic American manufacturer whose management pursues both established and emerging markets both at home and abroad from both foreign and domestic production and distribution sites. Its economic, political, and social environments—and financial needs—can and do vary, and wants and priorities may be at odds—all within the company’s boundaries.
Along the boundaries between business and government, no single broad-based business lobby, however admirable its stated intentions, can effectively advocate all of the interests of all of the corporations, companies, and partnerships that are its members. What’s more, not every company is comfortable being just anywhere under an “umbrella” lobby. Some want to be at the absolute center of action; other prefer to be closer to the edge.
In efforts to promote their perceived particular needs, thousands of American businesses, from the makers of airplanes and automobiles to the miners and processors of yellowcake, have joined hundreds of trade associations across the country. But even among the members of such seemingly like-minded organizations, the policy voices tend not to be in unison. Sometimes the differences are nuanced; other times, not so nuanced.
Certainly, the managers and employees of American manufacturing companies are not of one mind or one voice when the issue is the Affordable Care Act. For example, some manufacturing executives continue to decry almost any employee healthcare plan as a job-destroying business burden, while other manufacturers pursue progressive healthcare plans to attract and retain skilled employees and still other manufacturers see in the provisions of “Obamacare” opportunities for new lines of business.
The healthcare debate will not end in 2015. Obamacare legislation is still very young. Some regulations are likely to be altered as both employers and employees gain experience with the act’s requirements. And the financial impacts of the legislation on employers and employees have yet to be meaningfully measured.
Nevertheless, I believe that the men and women of business, in concord or in conflict, would be well advised to continue think about the conditions of their social, economic and political environments and to advocate public policy positions with clarity and vigor. For the people of American businesses not to take their places at the tables of public-policy conversations—for their voices not to be heard—would make for the unhappiest and unhealthiest of new years for everyone.
This is another of a series of occasional essay by John S. McClenahen, an award-winning writer and photographer who retired from IndustryWeek as a senior editor in 2006.