The cornerstone of Linda McMahon’s campaign is that, as she has repeatedly said in many different ways, that we should send her to Washington because of her business experience. Washington, according to McMahon, needs more business people. But I wonder: is that actually true?
There’s a couple of big assumptions here. First, business is apparently underrepresented in Washington — McMahon wouldn’t be saying that we need more otherwise. This is patently untrue. In fact, in the 112th Congress, “business” is the No. 1 declared occupation of members of the House of Representatives, according to a survey done by CQ Today and published by the Congressional Research Service. Business replaced law as the dominant profession of members of the House in 2011, but it was long the second-ranked survey answer.
McMahon may, of course, mean the Senate, since she’s trying to get elected to that body. But 28 of the 100 members of the Senate listed “business” as their occupation, so they seem relatively well-represented there. Outside of Congress there’s a huge number of business-focused interest groups, and the many, many business lobbies are well-funded and extremely powerful. Wealthy business owners and executives give disproportionate amounts of money to campaigns, and discussion of business and economics has dominated the national conversation for years. And yet according to McMahon and other business candidates, the situation is so dire and Washington is so deaf to business that we need to send in a few more CEOs to fix the place up.
This is another McMahon assumption, that the business and economic sense of a CEO is needed to “fix” the economy. This is one of Mitt Romney’s major underlying claims, as well. However, if business were capable of fixing things, shouldn’t the businessmen and women who sit in Congress have done so already? They pour millions into special interests and campaigns, run powerful lobbies and media, and otherwise crowd all other issues out of the political scene. What are they waiting for?
In fact, America has actually had a CEO president before: George W. Bush. He presided over the most devastating and sudden economic collapse this country has seen since the Great Depression. Before that, the Bush years saw a dangerous housing bubble, a widening gap between the rich and poor, and a ballooning national debt thanks in part to thoughtless tax cuts and two open-ended wars. And contrary to one of the most obvious principles of business, Bush also turned a comfortable budget surplus into a yawning deficit. CEO experience, then, isn’t any kind of guarantee that a candidate can steer the country away from economic doom. Bush had no special insight into the economy.
Yet there is a persistent myth that all government needs is the application of business principles. In fact, the skill sets needed to be an effective legislator or to run the executive branch of a government are very different from those needed to succeed in business.
First, the goals of business and government are drastically different; business wants to make a profit, government wants to serve the people.
Second, if someone were running a company that was losing money, he or she could either cut the workforce or raise prices for whatever it is they’re selling. For a government, it’s not that simple. The government doesn’t have just itself to worry about, but rather the entire economy. Raising taxes can push businesses on the brink over the edge and provoke political backlash. Cutting workers, on the other hand, can have a disastrous effect as unemployment goes up, businesses that relied upon those workers fail, and essential services vanish. Austerity, while often good for a family budget or a business, can be lethal for a nation. Ask the United Kingdom and the countries of southern Europe if austerity has saved them yet.
Lastly, governments and legislatures work on compromise and persuasion instead of top-down directing. Linda McMahon may have run a successful business, but how does that translate into being one of 100 senators?
McMahon and Romney would have us believe that only business sense can save the government and the economy. The facts and history don’t bear this out. There’s nothing wrong with representation of business interests in politics, but when we start to believe that a business background is inherently superior and far more applicable to government than, say, teaching, community organizing, law, or government, then we do ourselves and our country a disservice.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.