Starbucks CEO asks peers to withhold political contributions

— -- The CEO of Starbucks SBUX wants business leaders to jar Washington out of its partisan logjam by threatening not to give money to any political campaigns. For most of them, it won't be a big change.

When Howard Schultz announced last month that he would stop political contributions until lawmakers come up with a deficit-reduction plan, he said 100 other business leaders had also agreed to keep their checkbooks shut. But 38 of those executives appear not to have made any political contributions at all since at least 2008. Another 20 gave less than $5,000.

"That's a real easy one for me," said Jim Morris, the head of Lecere Corp. He hasn't given any money to a candidate in the past four years. "I don't understand why people make large campaign contributions, anyway. I haven't ever played in that arena," he said.

Schultz launched his quest last month, circulating a letter to fellow chief executives asking them not to make any campaign contributions until lawmakers deliver a "fiscally disciplined long-term debt and deficit plan." It followed months of partisan rancor in Washington about a deal to raise the federal government's borrowing limit. He also called on the executives to commit to do "all they can to accelerate job creation."

His backers include the chief executives of AOL and JCPenney, along with the heads of dozens of smaller businesses. Only a few have been major campaign donors: J. Crew Group CEO Millard Drexler has made almost $200,000 in political contributions since 2008, records show.

So far, about 19,000 people have pledged online to stop giving.

About 100,000 people joined a teleconference Tuesday night with Schultz and organizers of No Labels, a group New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg helped launch to counter partisanship.

Schultz, who a spokesman said was not available to be interviewed, has sharply criticized congressional gridlock. "This is a time when all Americans must stand up and realize what is at stake. We must realize we cannot stand by while a divide forms," he said Tuesday.

He repeated that message Wednesday in a letter to President Obama and the lawmakers appointed to a newly formed 12-member "supercommittee" to reduce the federal debt.

Schultz has declined to say what specific policies Congress should adopt to deal with the deficit or the economy — only that that they should be bipartisan and immediate.

Still, "it's hard to tell" what effect his campaign will have, said Fred Wertheimer, a supporter and longtime advocate of tighter controls on money in politics. Wertheimer was among those who signed Schultz's pledge, though he said he hasn't donated in decades. "You strike a match and you see what happens. … People think everything's impossible until it happens."

The 100 executives who signed Schultz's pledge have given a combined $1.9 million in political contributions since 2008, federal records show. Much of that money went to industry groups and other political committees instead of candidates.

By comparison, presidential candidates alone raised $1.6 billion in donations in 2008; the totals for the 2012 race are likely to be higher.

Also not clear is whether the pledge will prompt companies to disengage from Washington in other ways. Political action committees associated with companies headed by executives who backed Schultz's campaign spent $1.2 million on political campaigns since 2008, federal records show.

The companies spent significantly more — at least $11.7 million — lobbying Congress on issues ranging from trade to medical regulations since 2009. Nasdaq — whose chief executive, Greifeld, signed the pledge, has spent about $2.4 million lobbying on issues ranging from financial regulation to rules about market data in the past three years, government records show.

A Starbucks spokesman, Jim Olson, said the company did not plan to stop lobbying.

Records show Starbucks spent about $350,000 on lobbyists last year, seeking to influence lawmakers about everything from cup recycling to health care reform.

"Expressing concern with our political leaders about the lack of cooperation and urgency surrounding our debt and deficit challenge should not disqualify us from engaging those same leaders on topics such as health care, environmental stewardship, and advocacy for nutrition labeling," he said in an e-mail.

No Labels co-founder Lisa Borders said she expects Schultz's effort to have an impact, even if most of the people who have signed on so far aren't major donors.

"Money is the mother's milk of politics," she said. "Without money, you have a very difficult time running anybody's campaign. … If you pull that lever and pull it to a screeching halt, you will get everyone's attention."