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