Suddenly, Identity Crisis Grips the GOP

Don't say nothing ever changes in Washington. At the moment, we seem to be witnessing one of the most extraordinary role reversals in American politics of the last few decades.

To put it simply: The Republicans right now are not behaving like the party of Big Business. And, by contrast, the Democrats are. Mark Hanna, the Ohio financier who a century ago cemented the link between American corporations and the Republican Party, must be turning over in his grave.

At least on foreign policy, the Republicans on Capitol Hill have this year been dealing with the business community the way they used to brush off welfare moms.

The best example is the legislation to provide $18 billion in new U.S. contributions to replenish the International Monetary Fund. U.S. businesses desperately want the bill; they fear that if the IMF can't come to the aid of strapped economies overseas, American exports will plummet.

Yet despite repeated appeals from the business community, the IMF legislation is stuck on Capitol Hill.


Democrats, led by House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, have endorsed the bill, but House Republicans have refused for six months to go along. They're holding up the IMF legislation to see if they can win approval of an abortion provision, one that would bar U.S. aid to any international organization that supports abortions.

No one predicted that this would happen. At the beginning of the year, most of Washington thought that a measure to aid the world economy and the overseas sales of American corporations would have been embraced by the Republicans and, probably, opposed by the Democrats.

Would Republicans forsake the business community because of an issue like abortion? It didn't seem possible. But right now, that's what's happening.

This was not an isolated example. A couple of weeks ago, the House voted to ban U.S. exports of satellites to China, despite warnings that such a measure would cost American companies many millions of dollars in sales. It was the sort of measure that, in other years, the Republican majority could have been expected to kill.

What's going on here? Is this change for real? There are three theories in Washington. Let's examine them.

Theory One: The 1994 elections transformed the Republican Party.

The apostles of change say the election of 1994 brought in a new group of Republican congressmen who have fewer ties to business than their predecessors. The Republicans on Capitol Hill don't come from the Chambers of Commerce any more. They care far more about issues like abortion and religious freedom than did their predecessors.

Theory Two: The change is only fleeting. The Republican leadership is engaged in a short-term, tactical maneuver.

By this theory, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) are temporarily accommodating the social conservatives--the antiabortion groups and Christian activists who make up an important part of the party's grass-roots support (and who, not incidentally, do lots of the footwork in congressional campaigns).

Eventually, the cynics say, the Republicans will come around to doing what the business community wants, the way they usually have in the past.

Theory Three: America First.

Don't miss the larger picture, say the inveterate logrollers. Look at the trade-offs: The American business community is getting most of what it wants from the Republican congressional leadership on domestic issues. Foreign-policy questions such as the future of the IMF are far less important.

There are huge stakes involved in congressional battles like tobacco legislation or the future of managed care. On these issues, the Republicans have been far more protective of the business community than the Democrats--as has been the case for most of the last century.

Which is right? I'm skeptical of Theory One. The fund-raising dynamics haven't changed. No matter whether a new member of Congress comes from the Chamber of Commerce or not, he or she still needs to raise money from the business community to run for reelection.

Theory Two makes some sense. Watch Lott and Gingrich carefully, and you can find hints that the current anti-business climate among the Republicans won't endure.

Last week, after the House passed the ban on satellite exports to China, Lott was asked whether the Senate would pass a similar measure.

"Typically, we like to let things cool off a little bit," the majority leader said. Those are code words. They mean that he hopes to delay the measure until the fall, then let it quietly die in the Senate.

Theory Three is, in a way, the most interesting one. Big companies, such as Boeing, don't represent the entire American business community. There are plenty of other U.S. companies that don't rely so heavily on exports, and who don't care so much about salvaging the economies of East Asia.

So maybe these other companies figure that if the IMF runs out of cash, it won't matter to them. (Unless, of course, the result is a world depression that eventually comes home to America.)

We can't know for sure yet how to judge the Republicans, because we need to wait to see what they'll do over the next few months. But if the IMF bill fails, and the ban on satellites passes, we may be watching a bit of U.S. history pass before our eyes.

Calvin Coolidge once quipped that "the business of America is business." That was in 1925. These days, Coolidge might have become a Democrat.

Jim Mann's column appears in this space every Wednesday.

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