If the business of America is business, as Calvin Coolidge once said, then why is the country run mostly by lawyers?Even today, when the White House has proved hospitable to (of all things) an actor, 60% of the Senate and 43% of the House are made up of people who were trained in the law. Explanations vary, but most suggest that if anyone is to blame for this state of affairs it is businesspeople themselves. Edwin Zschau, for example, the Republican congressman from California's 12th District, reports that whenever he lectures businesspeople's groups on how badly government needs their fresh approach to the issues, he usually gets the same reply: "Ed, you're right, but we've got more important things to do." This only proves Zschau's point, which is that government then gets left to people "who haven't anything better to do," but his audiences are seldom moved.
In a somewhat similar vein, Senator J. James Exon, a Democrat from Nebraska, argues that "the main reason businesspeople don't run for office is they want to make money. Why go into polities and get knocked around when you can play golf on Wednesday and Saturday afternoons and make a hell of a lot more money doing it?" Former Republican Governor Richard A. Snelling of Vermont offers another reason: the lack of fit between the political and the business life. "Politicians are the least entrepreneurial group of people I've ever known," Snelling maintains. "They go where the road goes. Government totally lacks the ability to forge new paths, to take big risks."
All three of these men, however, defy their own explanations. Ed Zschau, the "representative from Silicon Valley," as he is known on the Hill, was the founder and chief executive officer of System Industries Inc., a manufacturer of computer memory systems, before he won a seat in Congress in 1982. By the same token, Exon built a successful office-equipment business before becoming Nebraska's governor in 1970 and a senator eight years later. Snelling parlayed some money he earned by rehabilitating a Vermont cable-TV system into a successful diversified-manufacturing company, one division of which made ski racks and ski poles -- not a bad business base for a would-be politico in the Green Mountain State. Elected governor in 1976, he was reelected three more times before stepping down last January.
There are other entrepreneurs in big-time politics. Among the governors there is Republican Robert D. Orr, a venture capitalist and small-business man who was recently reelected to a second term in Indiana. Among U.S. senators there is Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), who built a lucrative chain of airport parking lots out of real estate investments in Cleveland; Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.), a co-founder of Automatic Data Processing Inc., who was a pioneer in the computer services industry; or Rudy Boschwitz (R-Minn.), who forged a chain of home-improvement centers in the upper Midwest. And besides Zschau there are other members of the House, Berkley Bedell (D-Iowa), for example, who developed a successful fishing-tackle business (Bedell invented a new type of monofilament fishing line) with money he had been saving ever since he had had a paper route.
Still, proportionate to their numbers, businesspeople are clearly staying out of electoral politics in droves. One obvious reason, as Senator Exon asserts, is the financial sacrifice. Another, arguably more important, is the sacrifice of privacy. "You have to enjoy the celebrity part," says Congressman Fortney H. "Pete" Stark (D-Calif.). He certainly does. A founder of a successful bank in Walnut Creek, Calif., Stark managed to become something of a celebrity even when he was a banker -- a feat rarely achieved, or desired, by most members of that profession. At the height of the anti-Vietnam War protests, for example, he draped his bank in a huge peace sign. Such antics did him no harm in the name-recognition department when in 1972 he challenged a 28-year veteran of the House, George P. Miller, in the primary; neither did the wealth he had amassed hurt him in the subsequent general election. He has been in Congress, and still occasionally celebrated, ever since.
Still, almost all of the entrepreneurs in public life today agree that the loss of privacy was perhaps the biggest shock they had in moving from business to public life. "It is relentless," says Boschwitz. "You have to always ve up, always meeting people. You want to leave them with a good impression. In business you don't always care so much." In business, too, especially entrepreneurial private business, no one but the Internal Revenue Service sniffs around your financial affairs, and the IRS is pledged to discretion.
In politics, your business is everybody's business; there are times when the entire press corps, not to mention your opponents, will have their noses in your books. In Lewis E. Lehrman's 1982 New York gubernatorial campaign against Mario M. Cuomo, for example, Lehrman got involved in an abstruse but nasty front-page dispute with a former colleague over exactly how much credit Lehrman deserved for growing his family's wholesale grocery store business into Rite Aid Corp., the billion-dollar drugstore chain. In the 1974 Ohio primaries, John Glenn defeated Howard Metzenbaum at least in part by hammering away at Metzenbaum's difficulties with the IRS over $118,000 in back taxes. Metzenbaum was finally elected to the Senate in 1976, but he and Glenn are among the most distant of colleagues.
Privacy is a passion in business, and secrecy is often a key to success; it is no wonder that so many businesspeople abhor the glare of public life. The wonder is that so many others accept it. Lautenberg, echoing Stark, argues that personal ambition, a kind of vanity, is probably at work in most businesspeople's decision to go into politics. "Nobody goes into this business if they don't like being recognized, if there isn't some egoism involved." But there is something else, a public ambition, or pride, that makes these people seek a bigger stage to act on. Often at the heart of the decision to switch from business to politics is the conclusion that there is more to life than making a better widget.
Iowa Congressman Bedell, for example, a deeply religious man who found himself strongly opposed to the Vietnam War, decided to take the plunge into politics simply on the grounds that making public policy was, as he put it, "more important to our country than making fishing tackle. In your life and my life, we like to have an impact on our times: This is a good place to do it." Almost no one, of course, jumps straightaway from private to public life: Lautenberg ran charities, Boschwitz was a Republican Party fund-raiser and National Committeeman, Metzenbaum ran other people's campaigns. The experience sharpened their public ambitions. Only in electoral politics, they seem to have decided, could they find the opportunity to let loose their opinions on major issues of the day, and -- if they got to be respected enough -- not only have people listen to what they had to say, but act on it. "Every day [in the Senate] you get to play in the World Series," says Lautenberg. "How many chances like that does one have?"
Political consultants find much that is attractive about taking on an entrepreneur as a client. People with that sort of background, they say, are typically self-confident, willing to take risks, receptive to the planning and marketing services consultants provide, and wealthy enough to pay for first-class staffs and media campaigns. Moreover, among the voters there is a generally favorable perception of the self-made man or woman. "What people like about business is entrepreneurship," says political analyst William Schneider of the American Enterprise Institute, "the Thomas Edison image: hard work and perspiration. . . ."
Campaigning, however, demands only part of what it takes to be a politician. After he wins (if he wins), the entrepreneur may find that his business background can be almost a liability. As Democratic political consultant Robert D. Squier maintains, "The advantage of business is that it can be a dictatorship. A campaign can be a dictatorship, too. But government can't be. So the skills you bring from the business world are often more immediately translatable to the campaign than government."
The problem, in business terminology, is "production." Says Senator Boschwitz: "It is very exasperating to see how slowly things have to go. Everything has to be bargained out, and you have to be very careful. In business, if you were buying tables like this," he pounds the table, which wobbles, "you could call up the guy who sold them to you and say, 'What the hell is it with these tables?' And he says this and that, and then you don't do business with him next time. Here in Congress, there's always another vote tomorrow. You can't disconnect yourself from your colleagues as you can in business."
What makes the "production" problem especially galling to former businesspeople is that in politics there is no clear way of keeping score. What is the measure? The number of bills introduced in the legislature? The number of bills passed? The number of bills that you stopped from getting passed? It is impossible to say. As Ed Zschau argues: "I think one reason businesspeople don't get into politics is that in business, in entrepreneurship, there is a bottom line, and success is an easily quantifiable commodity. Whereas in politics, it is much more difficult."
Lautenberg had difficulty at first adjusting to the theatrical aspect of politics, the fact that so much of what politicians do is done for effect. "Never in business was there an occasion where there was an audience out there, where people were staging their comments, looking for the playback [as they do in Senate hearings and debates]. In business I was interested only in the facts. . . . Here, I found out that when you ask a question, when you make a decision, there's a theater full of people out there, examining each thing."
Despite all this, Ed Zschau is confident that entrepreneurial skills can be transferred to government. "Very similar attributes lead to success in politics and business," he says. "The leadership qualities, the fair-dealing qualities; they're all needed for success here as they are in business. The thing one does as an entrepreneur in this business is to develop an area of expertise. If you have a reputation for knowing an issue, your colleagues will rely on you." Zschau, of course, is considered a guru on high-technology issues. But he also points out that all the problems his fellow businesspeople in politics are likely to complain of -- the endless compromises and distractions, the pace of production -- were not invented by legislatures. Many of them were present in business, too.
Logically, business skills should transfer more easily to executive offices. This may be so, but not by much. "The list of dissimilarities between business and government is much, much longer than the list of similarities," says former governor Snelling. "But we ought to apply what we can from management to running government." What can be applied, Snelling believes, are the textbook-management skills: Examine all the options, assess the benefits and costs of a proposal, map a plan, fit personnel to the appropriate task, and understand the importance of budgets. As governor, one of Snelling's principal achievements was to implement a long-term budgeting system that incorporated plans for the ups and downs of the business cycle.
What can't be applied, Snelling thinks, are certain almost unquestioned business assumptions.The mandate, for example. Once a company has approved a course of action, a manager can proceed, confident that he has a mandate. That situation almost never exists in politics, no matter what politicians claim. "There really are very few totally agreed-upon mandates for the political leader," Snelling says. "You did not win because of your stand on the issue that was the most written about in the press; you won on a collection of issues. The politician has to be very careful about assuming there is a mandate for any particular stand on any particular issue." And as with the mandate, so with planning. A manager can draw up a strategic plan and stick to it. In government, Snelling argues, that is virtually impossible: Too many other forces -- legislators, lobbyists, the press -- have a say in the shaping of policy. Not to mention public opinion. Political executives may plan like other CEOs, but the bottom line in politics, after all, is what gets counted on Election Day.
Would government be any different with more businesspeople in office? Many observers think it would be, that it would function more responsively and efficiently. Senator Boschwitz, for example, argues, "We would get to the conclusion faster, not bullshit around so much, and get a lot more done." And Governor Orr says, "You know from a business background that things are going to change, and I think this helps you understand how to react." Yet there is often a good reason why government behaves at it does. In the face of change, people (including businesspeople) often fight to hold on to what they have, and politicians must represent their interests, too, as well as those of the change-makers. It is the same with the charge of inefficiency: What looks like "bullshitting" is often a painful but necessary building of political consensus. Delay in politics usually reflects real public uncertainty on the issues.
Surely, though, wouldn't greater business participation in government make it more "probusiness"? Not necessarily; not if the current crop of entrepreneurs in government is any guide. They cover the ideological spectrum only from left (Metzenbaum) to slightly right-of-center (Boschwitz and Zschau); the rightists (Lewis Lehrman, for example) have yet to win office. But the "probusiness" line has a deeper flaw: Business isn't some monolithic interest group that politicians can easily be "for" or "against." Indeed, there is hardly an officeholder in America who isn't "probusiness" in some sense or form, they only differ on which aspect of business to support, and how. It is just here, however, that businessperson in politics may really make a difference in government, by being a knowledgeable and forceful advocate, not of "business" but of an industry or sector of which he or she has firsthand experience. Berkley Bedell, for example, who took his fishing-tackle business head-to-head with E.I. Du Pont de Nemours, has been among the strongest supporters in the House of tough antitrust policies and measures to nurture small business. Governor Robert Orr of Indiana is another case in point. Several of his projects -- Corporation for Innovation Development, for example, and Corporation for Science and Technology -- reflect his prepolitical experience as a "poor man's venture capitalist," as he puts it, and as the sometime manager of a number of troubled companies.
In the final analysis, however, there is only one test of the compatibility of the entrepreneurial and the political career: How many defeated or retired businesspeople-turned-politicos happily turn again into businesspeople? Very, very few -- if we can judge from those now in public life. It is possible that Ed Zschau will return to Silicon Valley after he gives up his house seat, as he says he will, in 1988. On the other hand, it is equally possible that he may run for the Senate. It is possible that Ray Shamie, the entrepreneur who has lost two hard-fought bids to become a conservative senator from Massachusetts, will retire to the privacy of his privately held company. On the other hand, he has arranged things back at the office so that he can keep an extremely active speaking schedule around the state. Finally, it is quite conceivable that four-time winner Richard Snelling of Vermont will lie back on his laurels and never seek office again. The fact is, though, that he is still very much in the public eye as chairman of Proposition One, a group co-chaired by former Presidents Carter and Ford that is urging Congress to cut domestic and defense spending and raise taxes to balance the budget by 1989. It is Snelling, in fact, who perhaps best sums up the point of greatest congruity between entrepreneurship and politics. "There is a personality quirk, a kind of illness in essence: a desire to be totally involved," he says. "On balance, that sickness -- if it is a sickness -- has brought me a hell of a lot more joy than pain. I tend to like it when I am deeply involved."