Can you name the chairman or president of the following corporations? General Motors, Exxon, IBM, Proctor & Gamble, Sears, U.S. Steel, General Electric, Citibank, Metropolitan Life, and General Mills. If you can’t, join the vast majority who can’t, either. These men of vast economic and political power have a passion for anonymity. Unlike their company or brand names, they rarely appear on television in any capacity. Like James Baldwin, they could have written a book with the same title — “Nobody Knows My Name.
It was not always this way. Around the turn of the century, when populist distrust of corporate monopolies, or “trusts” as they were called then, was widespread, Americans knew many of these business moguls by name. They knew about J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and Jay Gould.
Now there are faceless chieftains behind the millions of advertising dollars that are designed to make the corporate or product name a household word. Morris the Cat is known to millions, but who knows who makes the cat food that Morris, the finicky one, consumes? When people learn that ITT bakes Wonder Bread (through a subsidiary), they are properly surprised.
THE ANONYMITY of top corporate executives is not restricted to television and the marketplace. It extends to the Congress and has serious effects on the ability of our national legislature to obtain information from the executives running giant business.
Rarer than the whooping crane is the appearance of a big corporate chairman or president before a public congressional committee hearing. While the Business Roundtable runs a shuttle of top corporate executives into Washington for private lobbying of senators and representatives regarding pending legislation, these men stay out of the public’s view when it comes to testifying and being cross-examined by the legislators.
Harder to explain is the legislators’ reluctance to demand that :op executives of these sprawling corporations come and testify on issues such as tax reform, occupational diseases, consumer protection, pollution control, corporate crime — to name a few serious matters which they should know about.
Congressional committee chairpersons regularly insist that cabinet secretaries and agency heads testify before them. They do not like to settle for second or third-rank government officials. In contrast, these legislators regularly settle for third or fourth-rank corporate representatives.
WHEN ASKED to explain this difference in treatment, a House committee aide said that there seems to be an “irrational reverence for corporate America” on Capitol Hill. He added that some committees think they can obtain more detailed information from lower level company witnesses. A moment later he acknowledged that this purpose could be achieved by having the chief executive bring along his assistants to fill in details whenever he concedes insufficient technical knowledge.
There are distinct advantages in having top corporate leaders face to face with top legislators. First, the latter would tend to lose that “irrational reverence.” There is nothing like a congressional hearing exchange to remove illusions about corporate grandeur. Second, the testimony comes from the highest authority of the company which makes it a far higher priority matter within that company. In the days before the hearing, the company chairman or president will nave to learn about the company’s impact on people, which his abstract position at the peak has neglected in the past.
One of the few times when top executives were strongly invited to testify occurred in 1965 during the auto safety controversy. Before they came to Washington, the auto executives had to go through a fast course in automotive design safety issues for the first time in their careers. Under the congressional stimulus, the message finally got to executive suites.
THE DEGREE of importance that the members of Congress attach to a hearing can be enhanced by the presence of the most important corporate executives. The media certainly recognize this elementary, point and it is about time the Congress did.
Citizen groups will certainly be asking the legislators why they are so willing to meet these business leaders in the privacy of their Capitol Hill clubs and offices, yet be so inhibited about having them questioned in the public hearing rooms a few yards away. ‑
At a recent hearing, Sen. Charles Percy (R-111.) had to excuse himself because he had an appointment with Henry Ford II back in his office. The hearing was on the consumer advocacy legislation which the Ford Motor Co. stubbornly opposes. No senator was publicly questioning Mr. Ford that day or any other day on consumer protection, auto defects, auto air pollution or water pollution. He is above it all.