In the midst of the talks in Washington to obviate the so-called fiscal “cliff” with a bipartisan deal, the Wall Street Journal reported that David Cote, the CEO of Honeywell, a $48 billion “industrial giant,” was at the time “the business executive most in the middle of the fiscal-cliff debate.” The Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D., Mont.) said, "People on both sides of the aisle are sending messages through Dave. He's become an active participant.” For a sitting CEO to have ensconced himself so deeply among the power-players in Washington did not come controversy-free. Even though his company had a vested interest that a deal be reached, the matter of his involvement raises larger implications, positive as well as negative.
David Cote, CEO of Honeywell. Civic duty or getting "his people" back in line in Washington? Bloomberg News
"I'm being accused of all kinds of nefarious motives just because I'm a CEO," Cote claimed. He also conceded his cause diverts a lot of time from his job but says he tries to make it up from his personal time. In any case, "the best for my shareholders is a robust economy," he explained, "which can't happen if the country is gridlocked over debt." True enough—a rising tide benefits all boats. However, as the Wall Street Journal points out, “Cote's efforts could benefit his business. Absent a cliff deal, deep cuts in federal spending on defense and many other programs will kick in. Success in averting them could help Honeywell, an aerospace and defense contractor that draws 10% of its $38 billion in annual sales from the government.” This point could not have been lost on the CEO. Honeywell’s stockholders were not volunteering their CEO in a sort of civic duty or good “corporate citizenship.”
Moreover, that the CEO of a major defense contractor was spending so much of his time as a go-between in Washington so a deal that would obviate automatic cuts including defense spending might have a better chance of being reached by Republican and Democratic leaders points to the depth of interest by the military-industrial complex in the task. I would not be surprised to learn that various government officials, including the Federal Reserve chairman, Ben Bernanke, were not themselves “carrying the water” for the government-dependent sector in stirring up doomsday predictions lest a deal not be reached in time to avoid “falling off the cliff.” Besides influencing the debate itself through ads and other, less transparent means, the sector with the most to lose was “bucking up” to keep the defense contracts coming. From this standpoint, it is surprising that Washington’s political elite had not fallen into line and come up with a deal by November.
“We’re not confident that our guys can govern anymore,” Cote observed as he was carrying messages between Republican Congressional leaders and the White House. While this observation could be oriented to the lack of responsiveness to the “sway” of the military-industrial complex in the halls of power, he said his role as political-deal-facilitator has been a "revelation” on how dysfunctional Washington had become simply in terms of being able to get along. "I meet people on both sides I like and find reasonable,” he said, “but they aren't working together." This is particularly significant, given the interest of the complex that a deal be reached. Might it be that ideological differences on government (or even immaturity) can actually bristle at, or even resist the power of money in Washington?
For instance, has ideology in the Republican Party on the role of government in the economy gone against the interests of Wall Street or corporate America, or is the ideology effectively a reflection of the whatever that base determines is its rightful interest? I suspect that there was no way that Republican leaders were going to let a deal slip by, even given the appearances to the contrary in the meantime as the leaders sought to get better terms by waiting until the last possible moment to seal a deal. However, were such a resolution “in the cards” given the underlying “marching orders,” why would Honeywell’s CEO have been spending so much time “carrying the water” in Washington?
That there might have actually even been a chance that the military-industrial complex could be subject to budget cuts is amazing, considering the power of money in the United States. Put another way, why would a man whose total direct compensation in 2011 was $25 million and whose retirement package assets were at $78 million feel the need to carry anyone’s water—especially given that his “Fix the Debt” non-profit had raised $43 by mid-December 2012 and could unleash television ads against “dysfunctional” elected officials who had not “gotten the message.” Something is really up when a real insider feels compelled to get so explicitly and personally involved—even given Honeywell’s financial interest that a deal be reached.
In short, there are wider implications for David Cote’s involvement amid the political class in Washington. His own, his company’s, and his sector’s financial interests notwithstanding, that a person of his stature would roll up his sleeves and get to work in “dysfunctional” Washington suggests that he is exactly the sort of person to who the American Founders would have called on to serve his country out of a sense of civic duty. Even as Obama was being urged to put Cote in his cabinet as Treasury or Commerce secretary, the CEO was saying, "I can't wait to get out of here and back to my day job." This sentiment, rather than a desire to run for office, should be “just the ticket” needed for admission to a fixed term of “duty” in Washington—then freedom. This is what citizenship means—realistically in the context of even vested interests. Even as Cote doubtless had his in mind, he was also going beyond the pale as a CEO actively working to craft a deal in at the highest level of the U.S. Government.
To be sure, David Cote could have been a rare snapshot of the military-industrial complex getting "its people" back into line in a Washington "unhinged" from its real principals. However, it could also be that the man deserves a lot of credit for stepping up to the plate in a ballpark not typically frequented by CEOs not only to protect his company, but also to tackle the systemic imbalance evinced in a public federal debt of over $16 trillion at the time. If so, the President would have been well advised to use him well—rather than too much—out of respect for the man’s public service. A restoration of the civic duty of citizenship can indeed be distinguished from the threat of plutocracy to a republic.
Monica Langley, “Honeywell CEO in the Middleof Fiscal Cliff Standoff,” The Wall Street Journal, December 13, 2012.