Home > Cande = Conjecture & Exaggeration, Fande = Fact & Evidence, The Economy > U.S. Chamber of Commerce = Public Enemy #1

U.S. Chamber of Commerce = Public Enemy #1



Other chamber heads have taken similar steps to separate themselves from the national Chamber. “I now have a standard e-mail saying we’re not a chapter of the U.S. Chamber that I have to send out a couple of times a week,” says Timothy Hulbert, president of the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce. Stan Kosciuszko, president of the Butler County, Pennsylvania, Chamber of Commerce, which is no longer a member of the Chamber, said, “They’ve abandoned the interests of smaller chambers like mine for their larger corporate members.”

But corporate members, including some of the larger ones, have been alienated too. The withdrawal of Apple from the Chamber’s membership roster was the result of a particularly clumsy campaign. It began last summer, when a senior vice president of the Chamber wrote a petition to the EPA calling for a public hearing on the science of climate change in order to present a “credible weighing” of the evidence. The author of the petition, William Kovacs, a vice president of the Chamber, told the Los Angeles Times that it “would be the science of climate change on trial” and referred it as “the Scopes monkey trial of the 21st century.” Not only did Apple drop its membership in response; so did the utilities Exelon, Pacific Gas and Electric, and PNM Resources. Among those who stayed in the fold, several companies, such as Nike and Johnson & Johnson, wrote stern letters of rebuke to Donohue. Donohue upbraided Kovacs but has done little else to address the concerns of the angered companies. “We may have gotten a phone call,” said Brian Herzog, director of government affairs for PG&E. “Within the universe of Chamber members some are more equal than others.”

Donohue’s tactics can also raise hackles in the home office. “I used to get strong complaints and resentment from local officials and politicians. They’d say, ‘You have no business here, you don’t know what you’re doing,’” a former Chamber lobbyist said. “But the complaints were rebuffed. The real test was whether we were making money off the effort, and we were.”

Donohue and his senior colleagues downplay the internal disagreements. “You’re never going to have one hundred percent unanimity,” Bruce Josten, the Chamber’s chief lobbyist, told me. “Never. There is inherent tension. There is tension between the oil companies and the gas companies. There is tension between the retailers and the wholesalers. There is tension between what used to be investment banks—we don’t have those anymore—and retail banks. I mean, come on. I laugh every day when someone calls and asks what does the business community think.”

And Donohue is unconcerned about complaints of alleged favoritism toward large corporations. “What we try to do is build an unholy alliance between big guys and little guys,” he said. “Let’s take a newspaper. Where do they get their money? Who put the ads in? It wasn’t Mary Little Good Shoes, it was Macy’s.” He added, “You can no longer run a huge national organization on the backs of small companies as they did many years ago.”

What becomes clear from observing Donohue’s record is that, for all his opposition to federal oversight, he is a quintessential creature of Washington. Like the head of any bureaucracy or agency, he measures his success far less by results than by the size of his budget. That’s why the Chamber’s agenda hews so closely to that of its largest contributors. It’s also why, even in front of dues payers such as Birmingham business leaders, Donohue is happy to trumpet how much money the Chamber is taking from them. Those funds don’t need to lead to accomplishments; they are the accomplishments.

Toward the end of our conversation in Birmingham, Donohue began to talk about the challenges of leading an organization. “The CEO in a major company now, if he lasts five years, he’s a hero,” Donohue said. It was clear that he was in part talking about himself. But Donohue has already lasted twelve years as Chamber president, and at the beginning of his tenure the board amended the bylaws to extend the mandatory retirement age past sixty-five. In 2009, he traveled 166 days of the year, coaxing open checkbooks, visiting twenty-seven states, and giving seventy-five speeches. All of this bodes well for his staying power. Still, “I am not powerful,” he said at one point. “The institution is powerful. If I walked out of the Chamber tomorrow, wouldn’t anybody return my phone calls except for a couple of my friends.” Given the anti-corporate rhetoric among Republicans, and the backlash against him in other quarters, this is a contingency he should consider. But for the moment Donohue is still the undisputed master of getting corporate giants to show him the money. And in a Washington that runs on money, that show must go on.

Propaganda from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce:


The example of Wall Street’s attempts to resist financial regulation—and the help provided by the Chamber—is an illustrative one. The Chamber pounced early on Congress to dissuade it from passing the Consumer Financial Protection Agency Act. Donohue’s troops mounted grassroots and media onslaughts around the country, dispatching local chamber officials and business members to lobby local lawmakers, and running local advertisements directly targeting them. In Montana, the Chamber aired an ad targeting Senator Jon Tester that showed a man lying awake in bed in the middle of the night, staring at the alarm clock, while a voiceover intoned, “Call Senator Tester. Tell him to stop the CFPA, because small businesses can’t afford more economic pain.” The Chamber put millions into this sort of advertising.

It used similar tactics against health care reform, launching a campaign that was even larger and more elaborate. The Chamber recruited local political operatives and had them set up front groups to oppose the House and Senate bills, and it also coordinated a national ad onslaught. In Arkansas’s second district, for instance, the Chamber aired ads directly attacking Democratic Representative Vic Snyder for his support of the House bill. (Vic Snyder has since announced that he won’t seek reelection, such an uphill battle is he now facing.) It also established a branch of a front group, the Campaign for Responsible Health Reform, and hired a Little Rock Republican strategist to run it. The strategist, Bill Vickery, told me that his activities were “backed solely” by the Chamber.

In other words, a large part of what the Chamber sells is political cover. For multibillion-dollar insurers, drug makers, and medical device manufacturers who are too smart and image conscious to make public attacks of their own, the Chamber of Commerce is a friend who will do the dirty work. “I want to give them all the deniability they need,” says Donohue. That deniability is evidently worth a lot. According to a January article in the National Journal, six insurers alone—Aetna, Cigna, Humana, Kaiser Foundation Health Plans, UnitedHealth Group, and Wellpoint—pumped up to $20 million into the Chamber last year.

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