Fix the Debt isn’t going anywhere
FORTUNE — The headline of a recent Paul Krugman column in The New York Times captured the prevailing mood over the latest campaigns to bring down the country’s debt. It was “Deficit Hawks Down.” But anyone who thought the CEOs clamoring for a big debt deal would slink out of the debate after failing to secure much at the end of the year should consider this: They’ve still got tens of millions of dollars in the bank, and they intend to spend it.
After the fiscal cliff came and went without either a sweeping budget resolution or a descent into financial chaos, the non-story dealt a serious blow to the country’s highest profile anti-debt group, Fix the Debt, whose members include some of the nation’s most powerful chief executives. Gone was the looming deadline that might be the impetus for a “grand bargain” on the budget. In its place, Congress upped taxes on the rich and punted on the debt ceiling, and the markets didn’t seem to mind too much. A growing chorus of voices has wondered whether now is the time to be pushing for debt reduction after all.
But if Fix the Debt is having a moment of existential crisis, it isn’t showing it.
The group, which counts A-listers like JPMorgan’s (JPM) Jamie Dimon and Goldman Sachs’ (GS) Lloyd Blankfein as backers, may have its biggest push still to come. Fix the Debt now has some 80 full-time staff members, about 40 of them in Washington and the rest scattered throughout 23 key states. And there’s reason to believe it has only spent a fraction of its reported nearly $45-million “war chest.”
In a recent interview, Fix the Debt spokesman Jon Romano declined to say exactly how much of its funding the group had used to date. It has yet to file financial disclosures. But Romano did say that the group intends to spend more in coming months than it has in its previous two big pushes. The first was in the run-up to the election. The second was an ad blitz leading up to the fiscal cliff that cost about $3 million. That’s small change for a group with such deep pockets.
“We started a little bit of advertising leading up to the fiscal cliff,” Romano says. “And then now, we’re really going to allocate these resources as we move forward.” The goal is a comprehensive budget deal by July.
Up to this point, Fix the Debt’s ad campaigns have been largely Washington-focused, combined with a heavy dose of CEO-lobbying. The next phase, Romano says, is national outreach. The campaign increasingly resembles a presidential race, with grassroots-style organizing and offices in places like New Hampshire, Ohio, Florida and Michigan. It has also recruited the support of some 2,700 small businesses (along with the 160 high-profile executivess already on board), and has rallied what it calls a “volunteer army.” Romano says the group will continue to raise “as much money as possible.”
“Now, it’s all about how do we get these leaders to pass a comprehensive debt deal,” Romano said. With the election and the fiscal cliff already gone without much movement, “this is probably the most important phase as we see it. This is where we actually think something will happen.”
Another reason to believe Fix the Debt isn’t going anywhere is that it’s already been around, in some form or another, for years. The group’s president, Maya MacGuineas, is also president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, an organization with ties to billionaire Pete Peterson. Peterson, who has various other links to the campaign, has contributed generously to anti-debt groups since the 1990s, and hasn’t indicated he’s scaling back.
For their part, CEOs seem on board for the long haul. Kathryn Wylde, head of the Partnership for New York City, said the causes that Peterson has championed have “spread like wildfire.” The executives in the campaign understand, Wylde says, that “a lot depends on getting this right.” She added: “And they don’t like losing.”
Will it work? Critics say Fix the Debt has lost clout in the wake of recent budget deliberations. In particular, organizations on the left that want to protect the funding of programs like Medicare and Social Security have chafed at the group’s calls for entitlement reform. And on the right, some Republicans are bristling that the group’s call for revenue undercut their negotiating position on the fiscal cliff talks. To boot, though several CEOs in the campaign have said they want “shared sacrifice,” the group has offered little in the way of specific proposals for closing loopholes or raising corporate taxes. The result has been perceptions of a “tremendous conflict of interest,” says Kevin Connor, director of the Public Accountability Initiative. While the CEOs’ companies call for shared sacrifice, their companies are compelled by shareholder interest to simultaneously privatelylobby congress for lower taxes. And as The New York Times pointed out, some had a vested interest in preventing the cuts that would have been triggered by the fiscal cliff.
Despite those criticisms, as the country continually flirts with self-imposed financial crisis, it makes sense to bring business leaders into the conversation. After all, the CEOs Fix the Debt has signed up still have big political clout, and a vested interest in the long-term economic health of the country. In the wake of recent setbacks, the group will have plenty of time to right the ship. As Romano says, “This is just the beginning.”