U.S. Chamber of Commerce: The baddest bully in Washington

How the U.S. Chamber of Commerce became the greatest (bumbling) enemy of America

U.S. Chamber of Commerce: The baddest bully in Washington
Patrick Faricy

Meet America's business cheerleaders.

People tend to view the Chamber of Commerce in the same colors as the Rotary Club or the Knights of Columbus: officious do-gooders lending a helpful hand in the name of economy and country. It's a largely accurate assessment — at least on the local level.

In Davenport, Iowa, it means hosting music festivals like River Roots Live, a "quality of life initiative" that brings 30,000 people downtown each year, says Jennifer Walker of the Quad Cities chamber.

The U.S. Chamber wanted taxpayers to bail out BP after the Gulf oil spill
Kris Krug
The U.S. Chamber wanted taxpayers to bail out BP after the Gulf oil spill
U.S. Chamber CEO Tom Donohue believes in small government, except when it comes to corporate welfare
U.S. Chamber CEO Tom Donohue believes in small government, except when it comes to corporate welfare

In Largo, Florida, it means introducing the small and struggling to the guys with all the money. "They want to meet heads of the hospitals, heads of the banks, so they can generate business from one another," says the president of that city's chamber, Tom Morrissette.

In Pasadena, California, it means pushing a business agenda without the sectarian shrieking of Washington. "We can still go for a beer after work and talk about our kids," says chamber president Paul Little.

These are sainted duties. Local chambers chiefly represent small businesses, which collectively make for the nation's largest and most stable employer. After all, the florist and the restaurateur are more likely to sponsor a softball team than ship their jobs to Indonesia. Neither is prone to demanding public welfare under threat of bolting for Tennessee.

The local chambers are their cheerleaders, providing mercantile expertise, all with a cheerful disposition built to illuminate the possible.

But that reputation is being smeared by their national umbrella group, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It's quietly become the baddest bully in Washington. And its behavior is causing dozens of locals — and some of America's most prominent companies — to flee its ranks.

II. Now meet their weird Uncle Ed, who's ruining the family name.

Think of the U.S. Chamber as your crazy Uncle Ed. He spent too much time listening to talk radio, developed a raging victim complex, and came to believe that the country was being destroyed by sloth and moochery. So he formed a lobbying group to defend the one true antidote: free enterprise.

Over the past century, the U.S. Chamber has sounded a lot like Ed when he's surrounded by a battalion of vanquished Budweisers.

The national organization was against America's rush to stop Hitler in World War II. It called Franklin Roosevelt's remedies for the Great Depression, among them Social Security, an attempt to "Sovietize" America. After the war, it cheered on Joe McCarthy's hunt for imaginary Commies.

More recently, the U.S. Chamber fought against civil rights, the Americans With Disabilities Act, and safeguards for gays and lesbians. At one point, it even championed the need to discriminate against pregnant employees.

The Chamber is against workplace safety, regulating pollution, paid family leave, and banning chemicals that cause birth defects.

The group's guiding principle: If it might help regular people, the Chamber considers it heresy. Free enterprise should be absolutely free, this logic goes, even if it turns the country into Rwanda with nicer Burger Kings. Anything less is an outrage.

"They've been on the wrong side of every issue in U.S. history," says Auden Schendler, a vice president at Aspen Skiing Company who pushed his city's chamber to leave the national group.

Still, up until 1997, the U.S. Chamber enjoyed bipartisan respect in Washington. It was viewed as the Official Voice of Business, capable of playing amiably with others. But it was also losing members, money, and effectiveness.

That year, Tom Donohue became its new CEO. If the old Chamber was crazy Ed, Donohue's version would be Sean Hannity on steroids and meth, with a monster war chest and a prime-time audience.

III. The Big Gorilla gets a pocketful of money.

Donohue, the former head of a trucking trade group, instinctively understood Washington's unofficial law — namely, if you dole out millions of dollars to punctuate each sentence, you suddenly don't sound that weird anymore.

So he traveled the country, grubbing donations from the largest companies. His goal, as he wrote at the time, was to "build the biggest gorilla in this town."

And he did.

In 1997, the year that Donohue arrived, the Chamber spent $17 million on lobbying. Today that figure approaches $140 million annually, three times the purse of the next-biggest congressional manipulator, the National Association of Realtors.

"They're kind of the poster child for how big business and the super-rich are able to control the agenda in Washington," says Jake Parent, who runs the "U.S. Chamber Watch" website at Public Citizen, a D.C. consumer group with 250,000 members.

Officially, the Chamber still fancies itself the Voice of American Business, a town crier advocating for small government, less regulation, and the miracle cure of free enterprise. "We passionately believe it's time to stop apologizing for the one system in our society that actually works," Donohue said in his annual "State of American Business" speech in 2012.

But to raise the millions needed for his lobbying efforts, he had to beg from the only people with millions to give: America's mightiest corporations. And they, quite naturally, wanted a return on their investment.

Soon the U.S. Chamber began sounding less like the apostle of free markets and more like the official welfare agency of the golden-parachute set. Donohue called for drastic cuts to social programs. But he also wanted taxpayers to bail out BP after its Gulf spill, defended the oil industry's $12 billion annual welfare package, and was outworked by no one in protecting Wall Street banks from Too Big to Fail laws.

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5 comments
g8way
g8way

This article perfectly sums up why my business avoids joining the Chamber. If you mssed the ugly ads during election season, you were sleeping. The US Chamber is definitely destroying the country with its support for candidates that would rather push dogmatic, ideologic drivel than actually run the country (if that doesn't bring a certain someone to mind, I don't know what would). The local Chambers claim they are not associated with that, but some of the local Chambers push right-wing local policies too. We are going to avoid them until they change their name to [local] Business Network or something, and show they really are not part of the Chamber's Big Business wolf in sheeps clothing.

kmchale61
kmchale61

So Pete can you write an article without being the typical left wing generalizer, let us lump all that do not believe in my views into the Sean Hannity group? You lose readers when you start an article with your political tribe.

Shaun Mason
Shaun Mason

ugh. It's like looking at the world thru a toilet paper roll tube.

jk001
jk001

@g8way This is why business people, particularly small business people have formed Independent Business Alliances.    A  number of area independent businesses formed one called the Metro Independent Business Alliance [ Metro IBA ]    and has done many very good things for the businesses,  the economy and the people of the twin cities area.      I do want to say that I am constantly horrified to see the US Chamber claim they are supporting small independent business with their extremist,  Mega Corporation positions.    If they ever support something that is good for small independent business, it is by coincidence, but they support it because it is good for  Mega Multi National Corporations.    I get regular emails from the US Chamber expressing how much they are working for Small business.   This is pure propaganda since they have no interest in small business,   just those companies that give them obscene amounts of money.       Just for clarity,  readers should know that Small Independent Business provides over 50% of all employment in America and in the last Minnesota House Research study Small Biz provided 90% of new jobs.     So the real job Creators and real job Providers are small business.   The Multi National Corps are only job creators in  third and fourth world countries and the bribed the Congress to give them a tax break for exporting our Jobs and our economy.                               John Kolstad/President, Mill City Music for  30 years.

drlolipop2
drlolipop2

@kmchale61  You haven't effectively refuted any of the points in the article. When you Bagger wingnuts can't attack the substance, you inevitably attack the style. Only the very stupid and gullible fall for your ploy.

 

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