A Crippled Clinton--What It Might Mean for Business

Dec. 21, 2004

At the beginning of each new session of Congress for the last 13 years, Sen. Trent Lott (R, Miss.), has been guest speaker at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce "policy insider" for corporate and trade association legislative representatives--a.k.a. "lobbyists." The occasion always has been a good opportunity for the business hired guns not only to hear what Lott, now the Senates majority leader, has to say about the Senates agenda, but also to get a free cholesterol-laden meal (their companies pay), to mingle, and to compare notes. For business journalists, attending the breakfast always has been worthwhile, too. Just as useful as hearing the majority leaders comments has been the chance to eavesdrop on the table discussions among the lobbyists and get their take on upcoming business legislation. Alas, not this year. When Lott made his latest Chamber appearance on Jan. 23--just four days before Congress returned--the table talk did not swirl around product-liability reform, Superfund reauthorization, reduction of the alternative minimum tax, repeal of EPAs new Clean Air rules, or any of scores of other business-related issues due to come up in the new session. All the lobbyists talked about was--you guessed it--the sordid Presidential sex scandal that had become public the previous day. Ever since, its been all anyone in Washington has talked about. Not since the last weeks of the Watergate crisis has a single subject so gripped the capital. To journalists who were on the scene as that generation-ago drama unfolded, the frenzy is all very familiar. The Washington Post, for example, seemingly writes about little else, typically carrying more than 20 stories and columns a day on the scandal. Jay Leno cracks late-night jokes about President Clinton with the frequency and viciousness that Johnny Carson did about Richard Nixon. Shouting, shoving reporters and photographers stalk the principals (one of whom, Monica Lewinski--lives, eerily, at the Watergate.) The outrage level rises with each revelation. The stock market is gyrating. Yet much is different. The scandal is sex-related, which makes it juicier. And it is moving much, much faster. In 1973, one didnt hear the words "impeachment" or "resignation" until months after the initial allegations were made. This time people began speculating on those possibilities immediately. It remains to be seen, though, whether the effect on the nations governance will be the same. It all depends on how the investigation plays out. When Richard Nixon was under siege during Watergate in 1973 and 74, he sought refuge in foreign affairs, where his independence from Congress was greater. He pursued the Viet Nam War, held a summit with the Soviet Union, and nurtured the nascent relationship with China hed initiated with his historic 1972 trip to Beijing. If Clinton stays in trouble, he might take the same foreign-policy refuge. Military action against Iraq, its said, is near. But Nixon did little in domestic affairs, and it would be hard to see Clinton able to so, either. Besides having to overcome opposition of the Republican majority in Congress on most issues, he could expect erosion of his Democratic base. What will this mean for business-related legislation? On issues in which Clinton has been an ally of business, his weakened position would hurt. For example, hed be unlikely to renew the fight for fast-track negotiating authority for the White House, or successfully win renewal of Most Favored Nation trade status for China. On other issues, though, a crippled Clinton would be good news for business. His ability to sustain vetoes would diminish, thus increasing the odds that product liability-reform legislation--eagerly sought by business--finally might become law. Similarly, the outlook would improve for a reduction in the capital-gains tax and the alternative minimum tax, two business priorities that Clinton has resisted. And certain Clinton proposals that business opposes, such as health-care mandates, would be less likely to pass. If Clinton should leave office before his term is up, the impact on business would be profound. Business lobbyists already are cringing at the prospect---conceivably for as many as 10 years--of a President Gore and his strong environmental and other activist proclivities. But its way too early to be speculating on any of this. Its possible Clinton could be vindicated and emerge even stronger. You can bet, though, that at the next Chamber of Commerce "policy insider" breakfast, these will be the topics of table talk.

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