Capital’s Lobbyists: The Business Roundtable and U.S. Manufacturing in the Global 1970s

The Business Roundtable is a U.S.-based lobbying organization founded in 1972 to unite the political power of top American industrial corporations. It was distinguished in its early years by its leadership structure and exclusivity—membership was conferred to only about 150 of the country’s largest corporations (by market capitalization) and only the chief executive officers (CEOs) of those companies were members. Within a decade, the Business Roundtable established itself as a pioneer among politically mobilized employer associations and its model was adopted by organizations like the European Round Table and Japan’s Keidenren.

However, in the early 1970s, the CEOs who created the Business Roundtable were driven by a provincial vision of political economy and the immediate problems of American manufacturing. Rather than cultivate international networks or pursue global strategies, the Business Roundtable’s leaders defined their policy agenda within the narrow limits of American domestic politics, both ideologically and in policy preferences. Their campaigns against union power, government regulation, and expansive fiscal policy reflected a backwards looking understanding of manufacturing’s needs that turned a blind eye to global economic trends.

This paper analyzes the founding of the Business Roundtable in the context of global economic change, particularly in manufacturing. It argues that the CEOs who formed this organization were successful in the short-term in establishing themselves as the pre-eminent voice of American industry, but that they largely misunderstood the nature of the economic challenges that manufacturing faced. As a result of their myopia, the Business Roundtable found itself less influential by the mid-1980s, even as its membership gravitated away from manufacturing and toward the more mobile and more profitable financial services industry.