In this case, as in nearly every private equity acquisition, private equity firm benefit from a legal double standard: They have effective control over the companies their funds buy, but are rarely held responsible for those companies’ actions. This mismatch helps to explain why private equity firms often make such risky or shortsighted moves that imperil their own businesses. When firms, through their takeovers, load companies up with debt, extract onerous fees or cut jobs or quality of care, they face big payouts when things go well, but generally suffer no legal consequences when they go poorly. It’s a “heads I win, tails you lose” sort of arrangement — one that’s been enormously profitable.
But it isn’t just that firms benefit from the law: They take great pains to shape it, too. Since 1990, private equity and investment firms have given over $900 million to federal candidates and have hired an untold number of senior government officials to work on their behalf. These have included cabinet members, speakers of the House, generals, a C.I.A. director, a vice president and a smattering of senators. Congressional staff members have found their way to private equity, too: Lobbying disclosure forms for the largest firms are filled with the names of former chiefs of staff, counsels and legislative directors. Carlyle, for instance, at various times employed two former F.C.C. chairmen, a former S.E.C. chair, a former NATO supreme allied commander, a former secretary of state and a former British prime minister, among others.
Such investments have paid off, as firms have lobbied to protect favored tax treatments, which in turn have given them disproportionate benefits when their investments succeed. The most prominent of these benefits is the carried interest loophole, which allows private equity executives to pay such low tax rates. The issue has been on the national agenda since at least 2006, and three presidents have tried to close the loophole. All three have failed.
Most recently, in 2021, as part of his first budget, President Biden proposed to end the benefit for people with very high incomes. But as he made his pitch, private equity opposition surged, and the largest firms each spent $3 million to $7 million on lobbying that year alone. One firm, Apollo Global Management, employed the former general counsel to the House Republican caucus, a former senior adviser to a past speaker of the House, a former chief of staff to another speaker and a former senator, plus more than a dozen other former officials.
As the plan wound its way through Congress, it grew weaker, and by the fall of 2021, the proposal to end the benefit was no longer a part of Mr. Biden’s budget negotiations. Instead, Congress approved an amendment that largely exempted small and midsize companies owned by private equity firms from a new corporate minimum tax. It was an obscure but important consideration, and with it, private equity firms managed not just to protect a preferred tax advantage — the carried interest loophole, which benefited people like Blackstone’s Stephen Schwarzman, whose income in 2022 was 50 times that of the chief executive of Goldman Sachs — but also to win a new one.