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Stating the case for growth

Aug. 18, 2011
Observations on the FIA in Washington
Robert E. Brooks

There is something encouraging about the Forging Industry Assn. organizing its members to visit their representatives in Washington, DC, to present those worthies a clear picture of the industry’s accomplishments, objectives, and concerns about critical issues. It was the eighth year for this effort by the FIA, which officials there called their most significant to-date, and apart from the possibly misunderstood name for this “Annual Lobby Day,” it’s heartening to see manufacturers exercising the democratic privilege so forthrightly.

According to one participant, 26 industry representatives attended meetings with U.S. senators and representatives, and their staffs, to emphasize how energy and climate-change policies undermine the competitiveness of U.S. manufacturers; how the expanding scope of federal regulations inhibit business development; as well as how tax and trade policies dampen the potential for domestic producers to compete in a global market.

“Lobbying” is a common enough term: it describes appeals by individuals and groups to government officials, in the lobbies or anterooms of their legislative chambers and offices. It has gained a negative connotation, of course, suggestive of the notion that any transactions between business and government are corrupt. But if there is corruption, why should we assume that the businessmen and women are the sources of it?

In recent decades, we’ve seen the government itself develop an unsuitable taste for doing business, sometimes in partnership with commercial interests and sometimes all on its own. The examples of their business success are too few to mention, but the ability to exercise leverage financially, as well as legally and politically, is too tempting to be overcome by losses. And, the losses are not really as difficult to manage or to explain as they would be in a private enterprise; most government officials seem to prosper in any case.

Worse, however, than the federal government’s ventures into the business world are its efforts to change the way real business is done. Thus, we have a thicket of taxes and regulations complicating business activity and raising the cost of operations, in the process hampering companies’ efforts to compete globally.

The federal government has the means to make businesses (and everyone else) acknowledge its authority. At times, as with the U.S. EPA’s emerging standards on greenhouse-gas emissions, it seeks to invoke that authority to define facts to its own satisfaction, and profit.

To these government excesses, add the insults that elected officials feel entitled to hurl at business people and the business world generally: they’re all greedy, unscrupulous, selfserving law-breakers, of course.

The notion that businesses corrupt government by their lobbying is one of the most corrosive ideas in public life; it’s untrue, to begin with, and it’s counterproductive to our current needs.

The U.S. has serious economic problems (unemployment, deficits), but no solutions are plausible without economic growth. There are opportunities for growth, but federal regulations that increase the cost of operations, discourage new investment, make energy unaffordable and unavailable, distort priorities, and intimidate private businesses, form a solid case for the view that the federal government is itself the obstacle to prosperity. “Corruption” may be too strong to describe all this, but at the least the federal government has departed from its established purposes.

And so, the sight of business people arriving in Washington to remind federal officials of their own interests, objectives, and concerns, raises the hope that there are people working to return this economy, and this democracy, to the reason and proportion that for so long have been its strength, and might be so again.