Longtime Business Lobbyist Laments Loss of 'Smoke-Filled Rooms' in Washington
R. Bruce Josten has been in the middle of the biggest deals in Washington over the past few decades without ever holding office, working on Capitol Hill or serving in the White House.
As executive vice president for government affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Mr. Josten, 66, was the point man for business interests in a slew of heavy-duty trade, tax and energy negotiations. He was a master at the inside game.
After more than 30 years in the Beaux-Arts-style chamber headquarters across Lafayette Square from the White House, Mr. Josten is now in his own transition, retiring after helping turn the chamber into a political powerhouse and watching his specialty — sophisticated legislative give-and-take — become less prized in a polarized capital.
Washington, he said, has become an "I-win, you-lose" town rather than a "how-do-we-get-this-done" town where those skilled in what he calls the "art of the back room" can have a big impact.
"I like to be able to negotiate and go back and forth," said Mr. Josten, recounting how he would shuttle proposals between congressional players on big bills. "That is what I did. It was a big part of closing a deal to get it out of committee, to get it to an actual floor vote to passage. And that doesn't happen anymore."
"I actually do miss the smoke-filled rooms of yesteryear," said Mr. Josten, and not just because he quit smoking after a health scare three years ago. "Because you got a lot done."
One thing Mr. Josten wasn't able to get done over the years was any kind of serious overhaul of the big entitlement programs such as Social Security, he said, noting ruefully that he struck out on three separate occasions. But he did lead a coalition that led to a balanced federal budget in 1996. And he took the chamber from handing out scorecards on lawmakers to spending millions of dollars on campaign advertising.
Mr. Josten doesn't always have patience for those without the grasp of the policy details that he marshals on a variety of complex tax and trade subjects. But the Harvard graduate and collegiate swimmer who began as a telemarketer for the chamber in 1974 was widely respected by those on all sides for his command of the issues and his ideas about how to bridge differences. K Street ran straight through his chamber office on H Street.
His exit comes at the end of a campaign season during which the Republican candidate for president — typically someone expected to be aligned with the chamber — was the one bashing big business for exporting jobs and accepting flawed trade deals at the expense of U.S. workers.
Mr. Josten isn't leaving because of the changing landscape and the arrival of President-elect Donald J. Trump. He says he just sees it as a good moment to turn over his responsibilities to successors he has helped recruit. But he doesn't dispute that the chamber has become a punching bag for some on the right who view establishment entities and their defense of institutions such as the U.S. Export-Import Bank as a big part of the problem in Washington.
He attributes the criticism of the bank, which provides government help to exporters, to a lack of understanding of international markets. And he sees the assault on the chamber by advocacy groups as a way to tap into public anger — and wallets.
"You need something to sell against to raise money, to be frank," he said. "If you look at Trump's campaign, he embodied that divisiveness, fear and anger in the American people. We are on the other side of that and we are a big target."
Mr. Josten is more concerned with the trend toward one party going it alone legislatively, using its power to impose its priorities on the other as the Democrats did with the health care law and Republicans are threatening to do by repealing it. That approach is not sustainable in the long run, he said.
"If you want durability and lasting law, the only way to really achieve it is to engage both sides of the aisle and reach an outcome that the president, regardless of party, will sign because of the product itself," he said.
He sees a current political and legislative climate marked by a certain inflexibility and intransigence that is not conducive to compromise and ends with little being accomplished.
"From time to time, you work with your adversaries," said Mr. Josten, who became the chamber's chief lobbyist in 1994, as the organization faced a membership revolt over the chamber's initial endorsement of key elements of the Clinton administration's health care proposal. "You've got to be able to separate certain things at certain times and do what is right for your constituents. I think it just became harder and harder for the politicians to do that and I think that has had an impact on all of us in town."
With Republicans about to assert themselves, Mr. Josten fears they won't learn from the mistakes made by Democrats when they had control of the White House and Congress and will "ram them and jam them" on taxes and health care. He suggests another course for Republicans who think there is but one alternative.
"Why don't you try it the old-fashioned way would be my recommendation," Mr. Josten said. "Let's have a real give and take."
"I always felt it shouldn't be really easy to legislate," he said. "It should be a bit of a challenge. You should have to work at it."
Now, for the first time in a long time, the lawmakers who choose to work at it will do so without Mr. Josten.