Net Net: Promoting innovation and managing change
Net Net: Promoting innovation and managing change

Debt dithering taking toll on corporate America

Cleaning up Washington
Cleaning up Washington

As lawmakers dither in Washington, trading phone calls, insults and the occasional calls for cooperation, they are putting a good swath of corporate America in limbo.

At this time of year, many are setting up budgets for 2014, but the impasse in the nation's capital means executives must make these decisions on how to spend their cash, without knowing how Washington plans to spend its own.

"If they have confidence, if they knew what contours of the landscape they had to traverse were, I think they would start investing again," former Citigroup Chairman Dick Parsons said on CNBC's "Squawk Box."

Catheryn Carroll, of Washington DC, berates members of the House Republican caucus while they hold a press conference on the steps of the U.S. Senate September 29, 2013 in Washington, DC.
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The landscape continues to look rocky for corporations.

While a temporary increase to the debt ceiling would avoid a near-term default, it does not ensure the U.S. will not default in a couple of months. If a budget deal is not reached, mandated budget cuts known as sequestration could mean far fewer government orders and revenue for a number of industries.

Lastly, if a budget is reached it might contain new taxes a firm may not have included in its plans for 2014.

CNBC called tens of executives from a wide range of industries to ask them how the gridlock in Washington was impacting their plans for 2014. Most declined to comment on Washington, though former Continental Airlines CEO Gordon Bethune said it is making executives very cautious about the coming year.

"You don't know what the next step is and you don't know if you are going to step on a bomb or its going to set you free," said Bethune.

Now a director at the Fortune 500 companies Sprint, Honeywell and Prudential Plc, Bethune said that while uncertainty is not a new issue for corporate executives, the budget battles in Washington have caused everyone to push the pause button on capital spending over the last year.

Peter Fisher, a former Treasury official and senior director at the BlackRock Investment Institute, said this could have negative implications for economic growth, as corporations decide on a safer way to spend their cash.

"The corporate leaders have shown they'd rather be buying back shares than making tough investment choices," he said during an interview on "Squawk Box." Raising the debt ceiling, he said, gives them another six months to put off making those choices.

But many want to make those choices; they just feel they cannot if Washington does not make its own tough decisions.

In an email to CNBC, Jeffrey Schieninger, president of Flexline, a maker of metal hoses based in Linden, N.J., expressed his frustration.

"Temporary fixes do not allow our customers to plan," he wrote. "It makes revenue streams (and therefore planning) chaotic. And does so for everyone in the supply channel. Blanket orders deliveries go out the window—lead times get pushed out which causes our costs to go up— it's a mess."

It's a mess a temporary fix is unlikely to clean up.

—Follow Mary Thompson on Twitter @MThompsonCNBC.