How the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce gave up on bi­par­ti­san­ship.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Robert G. Kaiser re­tired last year af­ter work­ing for 50 years in the news­room of The Washington Post. RE­VIEW BY ROBERT G. KAISER book­world@wash­post.com

Pol­i­tics in Washington has changed pro­foundly over the past gen­er­a­tion, and not for the bet­ter. By all avail­able in­di­ca­tions, es­pe­cially public opin­ion polls, the coun­try de­tests its politi­cians, es­pe­cially those who work in the cap­i­tal city. Politi­cians know this but show no tal­ent for im­prov­ing their rep­u­ta­tions. In­stead they preen and pos­ture, fight and flail, and gen­er­ally fail to con­front the long list of enor­mous na­tional prob­lems that rightly worry any citizen who pauses to think about our coun­try’s plight.

The U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce, the lead­ing lob­by­ing or­ga­ni­za­tion for Amer­ica’s busi­nesses, de­serves a good bit of the credit, or blame, for this sorry state of af­fairs. Af­ter trans­form­ing it­self into an ag­gres­sive ally of the most con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­cans in Washington, the Cham­ber has si­mul­ta­ne­ously raised its pro­file and re­duced its ef­fec­tive­ness. It is easy to imag­ine a fine book on this in­ter­est­ing sub­ject, but sadly, Alyssa Katz has not writ­ten it. In­stead she retells mostly fa­mil­iar anec­dotes from a re­lent­lessly an­tiCham­ber po­si­tion that will wear out even sym­pa­thetic read­ers, cre­at­ing a mis­lead­ing pic­ture of the Cham­ber’s im­por­tance.

The Cham­ber of Com­merce was once a mod­er­ately con­ser­va­tive, rea­son­ably prag­matic in­sti­tu­tion. In those barely re­mem­bered days be­fore par­ti­san war­fare be­came the prin­ci­pal pre­oc­cu­pa­tion of po­lit­i­cal Washington, the Cham­ber worked on prac­ti­cal prob­lems in prac­ti­cal ways. It was con­ser­va­tive but not self-con­sciously par­ti­san, col­lab­o­rat­ing with Democrats who could ben­e­fit from its sup­port. Con­tri­bu­tions to po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns by cor­po­rate po­lit­i­cal ac­tion com­mit­tees and ex­ec­u­tives used to be quite close to evenly di­vided be­tween the ma­jor par­ties. The Cham­ber of Com­merce cul­ti­vated con­ser­va­tive Democrats es­pe­cially, and got a lot out of the re­la­tion­ships it de­vel­oped with them.

The fates of Richard Lesher and Wil­liam Archey, once se­nior Cham­ber of Com­merce of­fi­cials, now ap­pear to be har­bin­gers of the trans­for­ma­tions that ru­ined Washington. Archey, the Cham­ber’s di­rec­tor of pol­icy in the 1980s and early ’90s, was the group’s most ef­fec­tive lob­by­ist on sub­stan­tive is­sues, and he ac­com­plished a great deal. In 1993, the first year of Bill Clin­ton’s pres­i­dency, Archey tried to work with the new ad­min­is­tra­tion on health-care re­form, some­thing many U.S. busi­nesses ac­tively fa­vored. Lesher, then the Cham­ber’s pres­i­dent and Archey’s boss, sup­ported his ef­forts.

But 1993 was a bad year for bi­par­ti­san col­lab­o­ra­tion. The ris­ing power in the House Repub­li­can cau­cus was a fac­tion led by Newt Gin­grich, Dick Armey and Tom De­Lay, three con­ser­va­tive po­lit­i­cal war­riors who had no in­ter­est in bi­par­ti­san com­pro­mises. Gin­grich and his al­lies were fu­ri­ous with Archey for col­lab­o­rat­ing with Hil­lary Clin­ton on healthcare and an­gry at Lesher for al­low­ing him to do it. Soon they per­suaded the Cham­ber’s board to dump Archey and re­place Lesher as well.

That’s how Tom Dono­hue, now 76, be­came pres­i­dent of the Cham­ber in 1997. A blunt, com­bat­ive Ir­ish­man whose shock of white hair has be­come a Washington land­mark, Dono­hue is a man of his place and times. He never ran a busi­ness or worked for a cor­po­ra­tion, but made a name for him­self in the cap­i­tal as di­rec­tor of the Amer­i­can Truck­ing As­so­ci­a­tion for 13 years, be­gin­ning in 1984. He built re­la­tion­ships with a va­ri­ety of Washington char­ac­ters; his clos­est friends and al­lies were mostly mod­er­ate Repub­li­cans. He cast him­self as a prag­matic prob­lem-solver.

He told Steven Pearl­stein of The Washington Post that when he was in­ter­viewed for the job of Cham­ber pres­i­dent, he in­formed mem­bers of the search com­mit­tee “that the Cham­ber could no longer be in a po­si­tion where its sup­port would be taken for granted by any­one, even its nat­u­ral Repub­li­can al­lies.” Once he got the job, he told Pearl­stein, he car­ried the same mes­sage to House Repub­li­can lead­ers: “I said they couldn’t be sure that the Cham­ber was go­ing to be there on ev­ery sin­gle is­sue. And I told them that they could be damn sure that we’re go­ing to try to bring some Demo­cratic votes along, even if it means mak­ing a few com­pro­mises here and there, be­cause we don’t just want to talk about these is­sues and feel good about where we stand on them. We want to win.”

That was in 1997. In the years since, that Dono­hue has pretty thor­oughly dis­ap­peared. De­Lay’s “K Street Pro­ject” — which made it clear to trade as­so­ci­a­tion ex­ec­u­tives and lob­by­ists that fa­vors of all kinds were avail­able only to those who do­nated heav­ily to House Repub­li­cans and helped the House lead­er­ship achieve its own aims — no doubt helped per­suade Dono­hue to put his bi­par­ti­san in­stincts into cold stor­age.

Un­der his lead­er­ship in sub­se­quent years, the Cham­ber grew into a rich and ac­tive ally of Repub­li­can con­ser­va­tives, rais­ing hun­dreds of mil­lions for tele­vi­sion ad cam­paigns and lob­by­ing to sup­port them and their causes. The Cham­ber’s is­sue cam­paigns be­came no­to­ri­ous for a re­lent­less, even ruth­less con­tentious­ness. Truth or ac­cu­racy yielded again and again to po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­di­ency. One clas­sic ex­am­ple was an ad cam­paign the Cham­ber ran in 2009 against the Con­sumer Fi­nan­cial Pro­tec­tion Bureau (CFPB), pro­posed by Pres­i­dent Obama as part of the fi­nan­cial re­forms that be­came the Dodd-Frank bill. One Cham­ber com­mer­cial de­picted a neigh­bor­hood butcher com­plain­ing that, be­cause he gave credit to his cus­tomers, he could face the wrath of a new fed­eral reg­u­la­tory agency. Another, sim­i­lar ad fea­tured an or­tho­don­tist in his white coat. There was never any plan to give the CFPB power over butch­ers or or­tho­don­tists, but that fact did not de­ter the Cham­ber.

Another fea­ture of the Dono­hue era be­came los­ing bat­tles. De­spite the Cham­ber’s scare tac­tics, the CFPB be­came a re­al­ity. (It has never is­sued any reg­u­la­tions cov­er­ing butch­ers; un­der the law, it can’t.) In 2012, the Cham­ber raised and spent mil­lions in an ef­fort to de­feat enough Demo­cratic sen­a­tors to cre­ate a Repub­li­can ma­jor­ity in the up­per house. Of the 12 Repub­li­cans Dono­hue backed for the Se­nate that year, nine lost. Dono­hue led an un­suc­cess­ful cam­paign against Oba­macare and has cru­saded against “ex­treme en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists” wor­ried about global warm­ing, whom he has tried to de­bunk.

He did suc­ceed in mak­ing the Cham­ber a knee-jerk sup­porter of con­gres­sional Repub­li­cans. (One ex­cep­tion has been immigration— Dono­hue, like many of his mem­ber com­pa­nies, fa­vors re­forms that House Repub­li­cans refuse to even con­sider.) In the process of col­lab­o­rat­ing with House Repub­li­cans, Dono­hue has so dis­cred­ited the Cham­ber with Democrats that they are un­likely to have an in­ter­est in help­ing its causes for a long time.

Most sig­nif­i­cant, Dono­hue has per­suaded cap­tains of Amer­i­can in­dus­try to fund the con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­can cru­sade that has helped to dis­able our po­lit­i­cal sys­tem and dis­credit the only na­tional in­sti­tu­tion that will ever be able to ad­dress our largest prob­lems: the fed­eral gov­ern­ment.

Katz, an ed­i­to­rial writer for the New York Daily News, is not a gifted sto­ry­teller, and she fails to do jus­tice to this juicy tale. When she tries to write col­or­fully, the re­sults can be un­set­tling. One ex­am­ple: “The Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fered the Cham­ber a pre­cious win­dow to roll back reg­u­la­tions, and the Cham­ber jumped right through the plate glass.”

The rein­ven­tion of Tom Dono­hue ought to have made for com­pelling read­ing, but Katz never brings him alive. She never ex­plains how this son of a Demo­crat from Long Is­land be­came a fe­ro­cious right-winger pre­pared to in­vent tall tales about his gov­ern­ment. She ig­nores the stark con­tra­dic­tion at the heart of Dono­hue’s con­duct dur­ing the Obama years: that de­spite his blood-cur­dling warn­ings of eco­nomic dis­as­ter if Obama stuck to his pol­icy agenda, the coun­try has come back from the Great Re­ces­sion, has added mil­lions of jobs and has pro­duced a do­mes­tic energy boom and enor­mous prof­its for the com­pa­nies that be­long to the Cham­ber of Com­merce.

Per­haps most frus­trat­ing, Katz shows scant un­der­stand­ing of how Washington ac­tu­ally op­er­ates. She re­peat­edly ex­ag­ger­ates the Cham­ber’s abil­ity to work its will, some­times with­out ap­pear­ing to re­al­ize that the sto­ries she tells of­ten re­veal the group’s flops bet­ter than they il­lus­trate its power. One of her chap­ters is called “How Busi­ness Bought Congress,” but sev­eral of her more in­ter­est­ing anec­dotes record the fail­ure of busi­ness to pre­vail in big Washington fights— over power plant pol­lu­tion, for ex­am­ple.

Katz is right to sound an alarm about the dele­te­ri­ous ef­fect of money and ide­ol­ogy on our public life, and about the bur­geon­ing Cham­ber of Con­merce, whose bud­get is now more than $250 mil­lion and whose staff ex­ceeds 500 peo­ple. But be­cause her ex­e­cu­tion is flawed, there is still room for a good book on these sub­jects.

THE IN­FLU­ENCE MA­CHINE The U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce and the Cor­po­rate Cap­ture of Amer­i­can Life By Alyssa Katz Spiegel & Grau. 315 pp. $28

Tom Dono­hue took the helm at the U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce in 1997. Since then, the group has tacked right­ward.

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