A Connecticut Lobbyist In Obama’s Court

There has been plenty of griping and grumbling over the past twenty-four hours about the President’s appointment of General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt to lead the President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. While he may be an idol of corporate America, Immelt appears to be an unlikely champion of American job creation. “Since Immelt took over in 2001,” Shahien Nasiripour reports in an article on Huffington Post,

GE has shed 34,000 jobs in the U.S., according to its most recent annual filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. But it’s added 25,000 jobs overseas.
At the end of 2009, GE employed 36,000 more people abroad than it did in the U.S. In 2000, it was nearly the opposite.

To make matters worse, Connecticut-based GE has not exactly been focusing its investments on American innovation and growth: in 2008 and 2009, Nasiripour points out, GE decided “indefinitely” to invest earnings abroad, while booking losses at home: as a result, General Electric enjoyed a negative tax rate in 2009 and a low rate of around 5 percent in 2008.

It stands to reason that more inducements and allurements, in the form of corporate tax breaks, are in the works to help focus Immelt and other corporate leaders on job creation. To help bring some of those foreign investments home, Immelt and other corporate titans will most likely continue to push for making the Research and Development Tax Credit permanent. They give the impression they are holding the spirit of Thomas Edison hostage, and will only release him if their conditions are met.

You might be forgiven for asking whether this is really the best way to spur American innovation, or whether Jeffrey Immelt and GE really have America’s best interests at heart. I’m sure Immelt believes he does; but can he, really? Maybe it all depends on how you sweeten the deal. Immelt himself reassured analysts and investors yesterday that he will always put GE first: “My commitment to GE and my leadership at GE, that doesn’t change,” he said on a conference call. He knows, I suppose, that no man can serve two masters.

The disturbing truth is that there really isn’t any great conflict of interest here: GE’s interests are not so far from American lawmakers’ interests. This happy consensus is largely the result of GE’s lobbying campaign, which in 2010 amounted to $39.3 million. $9 million of that campaign was dedicated to lobbying around a single project: the F-136 propulsion engine.

Developed for the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet (a big $382 billion project), the F136 propulsion system is GE’s “alternative” to the F-135 propulsion system developed by Pratt & Whitney. An alternative. That is, there are no plans to use GE’s F-136 engine in the fighter jets. Pratt & Whitney won the government contract for the F-35’s propulsion system. You’d think that would have resolved the matter.

But these things have a momentum all their own. Funding for the F-136 started as an earmark in a defense bill, and grew. The Bush administration tried to kill the F-136 engine; Secretary Gates called it a “boondoggle,” and President Obama promised to veto any defense bill that included the GE engine. Robert Gibbs yesterday reiterated that the engine is “not something we need.” But GE, arguing that competition drives down costs, has lobbied and continues to lobby for its engine, running ads, working both sides of the aisle, and spreading its message through the press.

Newly elected House Republicans are not going to stop the F-136. Congress has already funded its development to the tune of $3 billion, and funding will continue unabated through March 4th of this year. And just yesterday, a GE spokesman told ABC Newsthat “newly elevated leaders are even more likely to keep the engine program afloat.” It remains to be seen whether, come March, the President can or will stand his ground.

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