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The Art Of The Possible

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As I write this, a bipartisan group in the Senate with the support of the president has brought forth a proposal for immigration reform. Debate on the measure is scheduled to begin soon. But even before the debate begins, strident voices are being heard from both the right and the left, all condemning the measure, but for conflicting reasons. Extremists of all stripes seldom practice “the art of the possible” in their legislative efforts. It is usually their way or no way. Yet, in the end, the only legislation that becomes law is almost always a compromise. Perhaps by the time this is in print, we will know the outcome of immigration reform.

At any rate, as I have listened to the squabbling now raging, I am reminded of a meeting that I attended many years ago. Shortly after Ronald Reagan was elected president, he charged the White House staff with the task of meeting with business organizations to learn what, if any, problems they faced. Pursuant to that objective, a meeting was scheduled with the Key Industries Associations Committee (KIAC) of the American Society of Association Executives. I attended the meeting as a representative of the National Association of Life Underwriters and as a member of KIAC. Ed Meese, then-White House chief of staff, chaired the meeting. The purpose of the meeting was to help the president understand what was needed to revive the economy.

In preparation for our discussion, it was suggested that each person briefly state the problems being encountered by their respective industry. As the participants at the table related their tales of woe, I soon realized that our plight was rather insignificant by comparison. The realtors poured forth a Niagara of grief nurtured by high interest rates and inflation. For sheer chills and thrills, the toxic waste disposal problems of the chemical industry ranked next to the nuclear problems of the utilities. The Automobile Association took the prize for total gloom, with triple threats of pollution, energy cost and foreign competition. The savings and loan people spoke in hushed tones that did not disguise the anxiety that attached to an uncontrolled hemorrhage.

Most all of the industries made reference to plant obsolescence, environmental costs and the constraints imposed by OSHA. I tried, but must confess, I was outclassed. I recited, for the benefit of the new administration, the litany of problems we faced, but I could not make them sound as grim as my counterparts from other fields.

Two things impressed me most at this meeting: First, crafting legislation to deal with all the problems that were raised would be difficult, if not impossible, because of the conflict of objectives of the various organizations. Too often legislation that helps one business may harm another. This is a problem the U.S. Chamber of Commerce continually faces. On any given issue, they have members on both sides. For example, a few years back, the chamber endorsed legislation giving banks expanded powers into insurance and securities. The banks were, of course, delighted–but it cost the chamber a loss of members from both insurance and securities organizations. You win some and you lose some. Winning is better!

The second thing that impressed me at the Meese meeting was that the universal need of almost all the industries represented was capital at reasonable rates. New plants, new technology and expanding capacity all required an infusion of capital. This, of course, is not a problem for us, but rather a tremendous opportunity. As a major supplier of long-term capital for investment, our business seemed destined for a bright future.

But the main lesson I learned early in my career as an association executive was that when it comes to enabling legislation, be careful what you ask for. You seldom “get” something without having to “give up” something, and you don’t want to end up swapping an orchard for an apple. Perhaps a case in point will illustrate.

Prior to one of the several tax reform acts of the mid-1980s, the realtors, under the leadership of their CEO, an economist, launched a full-scale assault on Congress to “balance the budget.” The CEO wrote letters to the CEOs of all major trade associations urging them to join him in this crusade. He flooded the offices of members of Congress with exhortations to close deficits and balance the budget. Well, Congress did work on the issue, and, among other things, they shut down tax shelters–investments made for tax benefits rather than economic sense. When the smoke cleared, guess who was most hurt by the reforms? You guessed it: the realtors, with the resultant collapse of the savings and loan business adding to their woes. I also noticed that not too long after that, the realtors had a new CEO.

Creating legislation is tricky business, and entering that arena is safest where the public good can be clearly demonstrated. If the only objective is to remove an irritant that has little direct effect on the public interest, then you may be better advised to “keep your powder dry” and wait for something more important to come along. Crafting and enacting legislation really is an art–and you usually get only that which is possible, not always what you desire.