While a widely anticipated vacancy on the Supreme Court has not yet materialized, the fight over how to fill it has already been joined by a major business group.
The National Association of Manufactures plans to enter the fray by dispatching its in-house lobbying team and leveraging some of the considerable grass-roots strength of its more than 12,000 member companies.
“You could sit on the sidelines and watch everybody else, or you can join in,” NAM president and former Michigan Gov. John Engler (R) said during a meeting with Roll Call staff. “You could say it doesn’t matter. … You wouldn’t do that on a bill, yet you’re going to do that on the nine people who interpret every bill” — the nine Supreme Court justices.
Engler said he was unsure how much money the manufacturers’ lobby would commit to the campaign, though it likely would be minimal.
Instead, he said his group plans to work with the Business Industry Political Action Committee on the effort. BIPAC ordinarily focuses on electing business-minded candidates to Congress, leveraging the rank-and-file workers of major companies.
However, talks with the group are in early stages, and a source close to BIPAC said that since informal conversations with NAM leadership about three months ago, the issue has not come up again.
“I’m not against it, I’m just not for it,” the source said, adding that using the business network for a fight over a judicial nominee carries risks for its credibility with workers, who turn to it not for policy campaigns but for guidance on candidates during election seasons.
NAM spokesman Hank Cox said if the business group doesn’t work with BIPAC, it will use “other outlets.”
“We have several different ways to do this,” he said.
Officials in rival trade associations have raised eyebrows in recent months as Engler at first seemed to promise a major push to support President Bush’s federal judicial nominees and then failed to follow through.
NAM officials counter that Engler never wavered, saying he never intended to get involved in the Senate rules debate over filibusters of judicial nominees. They blamed the perception of NAM backing away on incorrect media reports.
But if NAM does follow through on Engler’s promise to get involved in a Supreme Court fight, the association is likely to find itself alone among business groups.
“I don’t know of a single instance where the business community has engaged Supreme Court nominations,” said one trade association executive. “It’s somewhat of an unnatural act to begin with, because the fissure lines on these nominations tend to immediately become social issues, and companies don’t take positions on social issues.”
An official with the Business Roundtable, which represents CEOs of the country’s biggest companies, said the BRT will sit out any debate on a Supreme Court nominee.
“It’s not something for us to lobby on,” BRT spokeswoman Tita Freeman said.
Engler acknowledged that social issues have dominated debate over judicial nominees — but added that it should not be so. He said his constituency believes that a large portion of federal judges’ dockets touch their bottom line, as evidenced by the fact 2.24 percent of the nation’s GDP “goes into the legal system.”
“The reality is there is no logic at all in business sitting by on the sidelines while personal injury lawyers are working the phones … advising Senators on the qualifications of this or that person,” he said. “We ought to at least offset that.”
Engler said he is unworried that the manufacturers’ other agenda items will suffer in Congress as a result, or that his group will lose support of Senate Democrats who have manufacturing interests in their states.
As it happens, the recently formed Senate Manufacturing Caucus includes eight Democrats, including Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.), an architect of the compromise deal that averted a showdown on banning judicial filibusters.
David DiMartino, Nelson’s spokesman, said the Senator has a “very strong relationship with NAM, and if they want to communicate with him about a Supreme Court nominee, his door is always open.”
Meanwhile, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), another member of the caucus, believes that “the president shouldn’t choose Supreme Court nominees for the approval of special interests, but should choose a consensus nominee that will be broadly acceptable to all Americans,” a spokeswoman said.
Aides to other Democrats declined to comment or did not return calls.
Engler said that NAM’s Supreme Court effort is coming together now. His board has approved the formation of a Judicial Review Committee that will review the records of any nominees and make recommendations.
“If there’s a record there where they’ve held a standard of interpreting the law and not trying to make it, that’s all we’re looking for,” Engler said.
The manufacturers’ lobby comes to a fight that already has big money lined up on both sides.
The conservative groups Progress for America and the Judicial Confirmation network together have pledged a $21 million TV and grass-roots campaign over a single Supreme Court vacancy.
Liberal groups that spent a combined $10 million on the fight over the filibusters of judicial nominees have so far declined to say how much they would spend for a high court battle.