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Missing in Action?

NAM Promised to Fight Vigorously for Bush’s Judges. Or Did It?

In January, barely three months into his job heading the National Association of Manufacturers, former Michigan Gov. John Engler (R) made an announcement that stunned many people in the lobbying world.

His organization, he said, would be first into the fray to support President Bush’s judicial nominees.

At at time when other major trade groups seemed eager to avoid a fight revolving around social issues and Senate filibuster rules, Engler told the Los Angeles Times that month that NAM would wage a multimillion-dollar campaign on behalf of the president’s stalled nominees.

“There has been too much of a tendency in the past to cast these judgeship battles as a social debate about abortion or gay rights,” the former governor told the paper. “In fact, there are very few of those cases in contrast to those dealing with the tort system and the rights of individuals and companies.”

He made similar comments at two public events that month, and then, in a National Press Club event Feb. 10, Engler told reporters that confirmation of federal judges would be a “major thrust” of the association.

He framed the issue as critical to business, since he said legal costs accounted for more than double what industry spends on research and development, and other major investments.

But as it turned out, NAM spent virtually nothing on the judicial filibuster fight.

Could it all have been just one big misunderstanding? NAM said that’s the case.

Pat Cleary, NAM’s vice president for communications, blamed the media for misinterpreting its position back in January.

Cleary said the original L.A. Times story — as well as pieces in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Detroit Free Press and the online magazine Salon — actually confused two separate NAM initiatives.

At the same time Engler announced the effort to support federal judicial nominees, he also unveiled an initiative called the American Justice Partnership, which was designed to achieve legal reform at the state and local level.

The state and local campaign, Cleary said, seeks to raise and spend millions of dollars. “Separately,” he said, “Engler has said we will get into the federal judicial nominees at some level.”

Asked why the NAM never corrected the L.A. Times account or any others, Cleary said, “We battle on dozens of issues every day where our views are erroneously reported. Some of them you let go. You pick your battles.”

Sean Rushton, executive director of the Committee for Justice, one of the leading groups pushing for confirmation of Bush’s nominees, backed that claim. He said that Engler told his group in an early 2005 meeting that NAM planned to skip the filibuster fight and get involved only after there was a vacancy on the Supreme Court.

But not everyone buys NAM’s line.

Tom Hamburger, the L.A. Times reporter who co-wrote the January story, said he was “surprised” to hear NAM took issue with his account.

“It’s the first I’ve heard of this,” he said. “I’ve talked to John Engler since the story appeared and never heard any complaint or concern.”

Meanwhile on K Street, a half-dozen lobbyists for NAM member companies and rival business groups speculated privately that Engler really did intend to get more involved on judges — but got reined in by his board.

One theory is that Engler, hired to rejuvenate a trade group that had lost some ground to such rivals as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Federation of Independent Business, wanted to set his group apart by taking up a high-profile cause and earning chits with the White House.

Another theory is that Engler let his prior career as a politician — and his close ties to Republicans who were active in the judges fight, including Bush himself — color his initial approach to his new job, even though being a trade association head is a fundamentally different task than being a partisan politician.

Either way, some lobbyists suggest that Engler was held back from taking NAM in that direction.

“Engler dreamed up this plan before he even stepped foot in NAM, but it turns out he got too far ahead of his constituent companies and got slapped down,” said a GOP lobbyist with close ties to the former governor.

“Sooner or later, membership will question what’s going on and say, ‘Why are you spending our dues on this [stuff],’” added a Democratic lobbyist for a NAM member company. “There was no hue and cry from the business community to weigh in on judges. It was 99 on a list of 100.”

This lobbyist said that Engler, in promoting his campaign, had not yet made the transition from “politician to industry leader. Now, he’s made the transition. He’s realized he needs to represent his membership, not his party.”

Then there’s a third view, one espoused by a little-known watchdog group, the Center for Political Accountability.

CPA, which formed in 2003 to encourage more disclosure of corporate political giving, waged a letter-writing campaign in April to directors of companies on NAM’s executive committee, said CPA co-founder Bruce Freed.

The group asked about 750 directors of 60 companies whether their management had been informed of NAM’s planned campaign and, if so, if management had informed directors.

“We are asking these questions to assure that shareholder value is not put at risk by the unapproved expenditure of corporate resources on controversial and socially divisive issue,” CPA concluded, asking for a reply.

Of the 10 companies that wrote back, most said they stood behind NAM and deferred to the association’s judgment on how to plot its course of advocacy.

Pfizer Vice Chairman David Shedlarz, for instance, wrote that “from a business perspective, civil litigation liability issues directly affect the ability of companies to operate in the current marketplace. … That is why we support tort reform.”

On the other hand, Nancy Dorn, head of General Electric’s Washington office, wrote that “GE has not contributed to any National Association of Manufacturers campaign relating to the confirmation of federal judges.”

“In fact,” she added, “we understand that NAM has no such campaign and has not contributed its members’ funds to any third party group actively engaged in the selection and confirmation of the federal judiciary.” She did not return a call for comment on the letter.

Because the possible effect of CPA’s letters on companies that never replied is unknown, the effect of CPA’s campaign is unclear, and several directors of targeted companies declined to comment.

Several lobbyists and directors for NAM member companies — including Hugh Price, a former president of the National Urban League and a Verizon board member — said they were unaware of the campaign or the group behind it.

NAM’s Cleary answered the effort in an April 26 letter to key association players, calling it an attempt to “cease our ‘multi-million dollar campaign’ to support the confirmation of federal judges.”

“Problem is,” he wrote, “there’s no such campaign.”

In an interview Monday, Cleary dismissed the CPA’s campaign as a “waste of postage.”

The letters did provoke some confused calls from member companies, Cleary said, but after he set them straight, “everybody said, ‘Cool, thanks, bye.’”

In recent months, Engler has indeed softened his tone on judges.

By early May, with the showdown over the “nuclear” option to change Senate rules for confirming judges in full swing, Engler gave a speech to the Detroit Economic Club listing five top legislative priorities for manufacturers. He mentioned passing bills on energy, the environment, asbestos, highway spending and telecommunications. He did not mention confirming federal judges.

One project on judges which NAM is going forward with is to finish assembling a committee that will review federal judicial nominees’ records. That panel will determine whether those nominees have been friendly to business and are worthy of NAM’s endorsement.

NAM will use its in-house lobbying team to press Senators for confirmation of nominees it’s endorsed and to activate its grass-roots networks to buttress those efforts.

Engler “has been consistent about this and gotten buy-in from the leadership of the NAM,” Cleary said, adding that the effort would roll out soon.

“We’re a little bureaucracy, just like anyone else,” he said. “There have been other things that have taken his time.”

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