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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

In Lobbyists' View, Do-Nothing Congress Would Be Heaven-Sent

November 20, 2000|ALISSA J. RUBIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — For the 13 days that America has been trying to figure out which candidate it elected president, politicians and pundits have been fretting about the potential effects of a weakened chief executive on the government's ability to make policy and get things done.

But for one group of Washington players, that's no problem at all. Business lobbyists, who regard most new laws and regulations as the enemy, say the prospect of paralysis is made to order.

"While the election is not necessarily good for America's interests, from a lobbying perspective, it's fine," said Jay Velasquez, a lobbyist and former staffer to Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas), who works primarily on financial services issues for Williams & Jensen, a lobbying and law firm. "By and large, as lobbyists, we're trying to stop things."

Close divisions make that all the easier. In interview after interview, lobbyists, who pay more attention to Congress and the presidency than almost anyone else in the country, predicted near-gridlock on the legislative front. For business, that means welcome stability and predictability.

"The old adage in Washington still holds that, if you bet nothing will happen, in most cases you're going to be right," said Patrick Clary, a vice president at the National Assn. of Manufacturers. "And with some of the crazier Gore ideas, we say, 'Thank God.' "

If Democrat Al Gore becomes president, business will have plenty of Republican allies in Congress to help put the brakes on legislation or regulation that they see as excessive.

Clary already has mapped out his game plan. If Vice President Gore wins, Clary will focus on stopping "burdensome" new regulations in the Labor Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and at Health and Human Services.

He's a lot less worried about the next four years if Republican George W. Bush emerges on top. But he senses a possibility that a bipartisan coalition might develop around some high-profile issues, particularly legislation that would give patients more leverage in their dealings with health maintenance organizations and expand their ability to hold HMOs liable in court.

A bipartisan patients' bill of rights cleared the House this year and attracted a near-majority in the Senate before heavy lobbying from business groups and the HMO industry cut it down.

"If it's Bush, we'll be playing a lot less defense; the regulation won't be at such a frenetic pace," Clary said. "My fear is that even in a Bush administration, on the patients' bill of rights, the trial lawyers and the American Medical Assn. will run away with the process because of their political clout."

In interviews, a number of lobbyists said they were confident that the close division of power in Washington would make it impossible for a President Bush to press ahead with his planned major overhauls of Social Security and Medicare.

Even the prospect that the Texas governor's sweeping tax cut proposal would be scrapped does not worry the lobbying community, said Alan Kranowitz, who headed President Reagan's legislative affairs office and now is a lobbyist and strategist for the National Assn. of Wholesaler-Distributors.

"There are a lot of people in this town who think that, until we're sure that the [federal budget] surplus is going to come through, that's not a bad thing," Kranowitz said. Rising estimates of the surplus, however, might make a tax cut hard for Congress to resist.

If Gore becomes president, the lobbyists said, he could be hard-pressed to deliver on his version of a major prescription drug benefit under Medicare, and he probably would be pushed to expand his highly targeted tax cut plan to make it more far-reaching.

"I don't think that anything is going to be done that is beyond the pale," Kranowitz said.

Another business lobbyist, Mark Isakowitz, said that the key to the next president's lasting success is keeping the economy healthy. Business, he said, understands that a big tax cut, just like a big new spending program, could dangerously unsettle the economy.

"If, at the end of the next couple of years, not much has happened except that the economy has continued to go OK and the national debt was paid down substantially and the surpluses continued to roll in, I don't see many businesspeople upset about that," Isakowitz said. "That's probably the outcome they would prefer."

Among the business lobbyists who lack this generally sanguine outlook are those representing health care: HMOs, hospitals and nursing homes. Health care depends heavily on government financing, and right now health care interests are pushing hard for additional funding, especially for Medicare.

"There are things we need from Congress," said Chip Kahn, president and chief executive of the Health Insurance Assn. of America, which represents health insurers as well as managed care companies.

Kranowitz said the health care lobby--and everyone else--could hope for little more than scaled-back versions of the grand plans offered during the 2000 campaign.

For instance, he said, "I'm not sure you'll see the estate tax repealed, but I think there's support for a significant reduction in it. You may see a prescription drug benefit, but it may be neither of the ideas that were offered during the campaign."

But even the most modest legislation will not become law without a major exercise in bipartisanship, Kranowitz and others said. If Bush wins, Kranowitz expects Republicans to reach out to Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), a centrist and Gore's running mate, as well as to other centrists of both parties in the House and Senate.

"I don't think either of the two bookends--liberals or conservatives--are going to get very much done," Kranowitz said. "It's going to have to come from the center."

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