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Not Your Father's Chamber of Commerce: National Organization Is Now a Tool of the Radical Right

Once a sane advocate and even community-minded organization, the Chamber of Commerce has been captured by the Republican Party.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is often seen as an extension of the local Chambers of Commerce with which many of us grew up -- the staid, nonpartisan organizations that not only advocated for local businesses, but were also a part of the broader fabric of communities across America. They lobbied local governments, but they also promoted small towns' business districts, sponsored local parades and outfitted Little League teams.

But that image couldn't be further out of date. The organization was formed some 90 years ago to represent an umbrella group of American businesses' diverse interests. But under the leadership of Thomas J. Donahue, it has become increasingly partisan, even reactionary, in its steadfast opposition to even modestly progressive proposals in Congress, including those that are in the apparent interests of some of its member firms.

Matt Stoller noted in 2006, "the national Chamber of Commerce isn't pro-business … it's just a fully captured right-wing organization that has been taken over by the Republican Party."

What distinguishes it from other conservative lobbying shops is its massive resources; the CoC has a budget of upwards of $150 million per year, and it throws that into a wide array of affiliate organizations that influence public policy in myriad ways and at every level of government.

Given its reach and impact on our public-policy debates, the CoC has operated under the radar to some degree. But its claim to represent a consensus of American businesses -- presumably a pragmatic role, given the diversity of its members' interests -- took a hit last week with the high-profile defection of a number of major firms because of the CoC's unyielding opposition to the very moderate and distinctly business-friendly climate-change bills wending through Congress. 

Such corporate heavyweights as Nike, GE and Apple -- and energy giants like Exelon and Pacific Energy and Gas -- have recently either distanced themselves from the Chamber, resigned their seats on its board of directors or quit the organization altogether in protest of what PG&E CEO Peter Darby called the CoC's "extreme position" on global warming and "disingenuous attempts to diminish or distort the reality of [the] challenges [it poses]."

Not Your Father's Chamber

The Chamber, which spends more on lobbying than any other organization in the country, has become a kind of unelected brake on the engine of progressive change -- the head of a massively influential network of deep-pocketed organizations whose essential purpose is preventing the creation of a more just society.

Which is fine with the Chamber's leadership; Donohue has lamented that democracy doesn't always serve the interests of his corporate constituents.

In 2007, lamenting Congress's failure to pass "fast-track" trade authority, Donahue said: "I've sort of come to the point that I don't blame the politicians as much as I blame their constituents."

Donahue has become Washington's most powerful advocate for corporate America, and you'd be hard pressed to find a better representative of the corporate culture that permeates our executive suites these days.

Writing of the Chamber's campaign to avoid new regulations for the financial industry in the midst of a severe recession that Wall Street's recklessness brought about, SEIU Vice President Anna Burger noted Donahue's checkered history "as a board member for companies plagued by accounting scandals, insider-trading investigations and massive shareholder losses."

In 2006, the New York Times reported that Donahue had been at the center of an insider-trading scandal uncovered by the Securities and Exchange Commission, noting that he had "been a force behind the Chamber of Commerce's efforts to defang" new accounting regulations. What's more, according to the Times, the organization had "the SEC's enforcement division in its sights; one Chamber priority is to 'curtail the SEC's overly broad authority to launch investigations.' "

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