Big business hedges its Democrat bets

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The Independent Online

Rupert Murdoch was put on the spot by a conservative shareholder at News Corporation's annual meeting last month. Why had the septuagenarian scourge of liberalism written a cheque for the election campaign of Harold Ford, the Democratic challenger in the tight race for the Senate in Tennessee?

A News Corp board member had brought the wannabe senator in, Mr Murdoch revealed, and Mr Ford tried to convince him how conservative he was. With a shrug, Mr Murdoch dismissed the shareholder's concern. "If I haven't given to his Republican rival, I will," he said.

Mr Murdoch's scattergun donating might seem merely politesse, if we were not six days away from mid-term elections that look likely to usher in a significant shift to the Democrats. In these circumstances, the media mogul's behaviour looks more like a sophisticated hedge - and it is one which the vast business lobby is frantically copying.

The flow of corporate political donations has been substantially redirected to Democrat candidates in many races in the past few weeks. Lobbyists are struggling to get a hold over the new Democrat Congress members who, polls say, are set to return control of the lower House of Representatives to the party after 12 years of Republican domination. With President George Bush and the Republicans slumping at the polls, there are some optimistic Democrats who believe they may even recapture control of the Senate.

With business, and Wall Street in particular, staunchly Republican, the shift represents a potentially challenging time for business in general and several giant industries in particular. The Democrats have raised their war cries against the pharmaceuticals industry and the oil giants, and both could expect to see legislative assaults on their profits within days of a Democrat takeover of the House.

Yet Wall Street has hardly flinched at the ascendancy of the Democrats, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average remains at record levels over 12,000. Partly this is because Democrat leaders have - with a few exceptions - kept their policy positions vague and modified their talk of rolling back the George Bush's tax cuts, at least until after 2008. But mainly this is because, with a Republican president, business hopes that the next two years at least will be a time of political deadlock rather than Democrat policy-making.

Brian Gardner, Washington analyst at the investment bank Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, said: "Wall Street wants grid-lock. We don't want the Democrats to come in rolling back tax cuts. What we want is stability. Stability and gridlock are synonymous right now."

The Wall Street veteran John Bogle, founder of the Vanguard investment management group, said: "Even if you have Democrat control of the House and the Senate, it will be very hard to pass substantial legislation that will be veto-proof. You are going to see a lot of action down in the House, no doubt, but I don't see very much change."

It is on an industry-by- industry, and even a company-by-company, basis that a change in the make-up of Congress could prove most significant, because there are some areas where legislation might be crafted to get past both houses and the President. And, of course, business knows that the House of Representatives which will be elected on 7 November will serve until 2008, not just for the remaining two years of the Bush presidency.

According to an analysis done by the New York Times last week, blue chip corporate action committees channelled 67 per cent of their funding to Republican candidates in the first nine months of this year, and 33 per cent to the Democrats. In the first 18 days of October, though, Democrats were getting 43 per cent of all contributions, the biggest last-minute shift from one party to another since the Republican landslide of 1994.

One of the most significant shifts has been made by Pfizer, which until September was giving 67 per cent of its donations to the Republicans, but in October Democrats were in receipt of 59 per cent.

The pharmaceuticals industry has much at stake, as it always has had since the cost of healthcare and the gaps in US health insurance became such important issues to an ageing population. It is no surprise that GlaxoSmithKline was the UK's biggest corporate spender on lobbying in 2004, the last year for which figures were compiled by the Centre for Public Integrity, or that the US pharmaceuticals industry association, Phrma, has been among the groups most aggressively funneling money into political campaigns this year.

One of the most specific proposals in the manifesto put out by Nancy Pelosi, who is likely to become Speaker of a Democrat-controlled House, is to centralise the buying of drugs paid for by the state Medicare health insurance scheme. The power of the senior citizens lobby in the US - and the poor reputation suffered by Big Pharma - means this is a measure that could pass both Houses and prove impossible for the President to veto. The drugs industry could also face tougher scrutiny of new medicines before they can be approved, another issue that has exercised Democrats in the past.

Big Oil can also expect an assault on its profits, and more subtle changes to the landscape that emerge from a Congress that is less sceptical about global warming. Incentives to invest in alternative fuels could have a little benefit for those companies who already have programmes in this area, such as BP, but mainly they could spur vibrant entrepreneurial rivals to Big Oil.

The power of the assault on these industries, and the influence the party can have on the wider direction of economic and social policy, will depend on the numbers of victorious Democrats next week.

Four sectors that could feel the force if the Republicans lose control of Congress

Pharmaceuticals

Healthcare reform has always been close to the top of a Democrat agenda. The dream of a universal health insurance scheme may stay on the shelf, but Democrats still promise to improve access to affordable healthcare. The emphasis is now less on the "access" and more on the "affordable" - and that means substantial new pressure on pharmaceutical companies' profits. The federal government, through its Medicare health insurance scheme, became the nation's single biggest buyer of medicines when the elderly were given help with their drug bills for the first time earlier this year. Yet this concentration of purchasing power has not resulted in lower prices. It couldn't. The Republican Congress ensured that administration of the scheme is devolved to a host of local operators. It was a sop to the powerful pharmaceuticals lobby that Democrats are promising to reverse through centralised procurement.

The Oil Industry

Democrat gains in Congress could pick away important Republican protectors of oil industry interests, and reignite the calls for a windfall tax that first flared in the summer when crude prices hit $70 a barrel. Those calls have been muted since crude prices fell back and BP has managed to turn the taps back on at its leak-prone Alaskan oil field., but they could resume if Democrats search for new sources of federal income. A windfall tax offers a politically more expedient source of income than reversing President George Bush's personal tax cuts. At the very least, Nancy Pelosi, who would be speaker of the House of Representatives, promises to end tax credits for Big Oil. And there would most likely be a renewed Congressional investigation into "price gouging" , claims that the industry is ripping off customers with high petrol prices.

The Car Industry

Democrats are promising to push the issue of global warming further and faster up the political agenda, after years when President Bush and Republican lawmakers have conspired to undermine faith in the science of climate change. Ms Pelosi's manifesto, A New Direction for America, decries how the country has "walked away from international efforts to help reduce this growing danger to the planet", and promises to "provide strong leadership to reduce emissions". The Democrats are promising to put the car industry front and centre of the efforts to curb emissions, with targets for the numbers of "flex fuel" vehicles that run on ethanol as well as gasoline. According to one plan, in five years, 75 per cent of all cars manufactured in America would be flex-fuel cars, and there would be financial carrots and legislative sticks to increase the number of petrol stations offering ethanol and biodiesel.

Minimum Wage

Federal government has not increased the country-wide minimum wage since 1997 and its value - $5.15 an hour - is lower in real terms than it has ever been. Although economic growth in the US has been strong, this has not generated a "feelgood factor" because Americans are worried about job security in an era when traditional industries are downsizing and increasing numbers of companies are switching jobs overseas. In this atmosphere, the minimum wage has become a totemic issue for the Democrats, and they are using ballots on state minimum wages to get out their core vote. In Congress, Democrats are planning to freeze lawmakers' pay until they agree to an increase in the federal minimum wage - a move that is opposed by business.

Stephen Foley

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