U.S. Chamber of Commerce: The Right Wing's Right Hand in D.C.

It's hard to precisely define the political establishment, the fixed group of financiers, political operatives, journalists, and politicians who make up the swirl of right-wing power in Washington D.C. But if it's not always simple to define in its totality, one man stands out as an innovative and particularly venal power broker: Thomas Donahue, President and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

In a lot of ways, the new challenge after the 2006 elections for the progressive movement boils down to finding the unethical and unaccountable purveyors of systemic corruption and rooting them out. It is these forces that put Bush in the White House and reelected him. It is these forces that corrupt both parties. It is these forces that are going to fight tooth and nail to defeat the Democratic majority, while attempting to also corrupt it from within.

Fortunately, in this case, we can put a face to the force. Tom Donahue is possibly the most powerful business lobbyist in D.C. Most recently, he has been pushing aggressively to weaken the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which was passed in the wake of the Enron scandal to ensure corporate accountability and protect investors. And right now, he's reeling, because he's been caught in an unethical stock scandal of his own. What happens to Donahue, whether he's able to maintain his stewardship of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, will go a long way towards answering the question of whether progressives can be confident in our ability to begin repairing some of the damage Bush and his ilk have done.

Here's the short story. Donahue is on the board of directors of Sunrise Senior Living, a company that offers assisted living facilities to the elderly, and according to Gretchen Morgenson of the New York Times, he sold stock in advance of an accounting problem which later became public and shaved $342 million from the company's market value. Shareholders are demanding answers, including an independent probe. This isn't the first time Donahue has had problems with corporate scandals. As Public Citizen has documented, this seems to be a behavior trait. Donahue sat on the board of Qwest as it defrauded investors, and on Union Pacific as the company was caught for massive safety violations. All of the companies on whose board he sits are members of the Chamber of Commerce, and he has often dedicated the brand and prestige of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to serving the interests of specific corporate donors instead of the general interests of the business community.

Now, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce itself is a powerhouse. According to the New York Times, the Chamber has more than three million members, from businesses of every size, sector and region; its 2,800 affiliated state and local chambers give it a presence in nearly every state and Congressional district. It spent more than $53 million on lobbying in 2004, more than any organization has ever spent in a year. In 2004, it deployed 215 people in 31 states, sent 3.7 million pieces of mail, made 5.6 million phone calls and sent more than 30 million e-mail messages on behalf of its candidates.

This institution is one of the most powerful vehicles in D.C. One characteristic of Republican rule is how right-wingers have seized on groups like this and moved them away from helping their members and towards becoming part of the Republican establishment. The Chamber purports to work for a business-friendly environment that helps its members, but it lobbies for anti-science policies that have to do solely with ideology. Despite massive costs for the insurance industry, for instance, the Chamber is still in denial over global warming, urging "Congress to carefully review the climate change issue before taking further action." Despite the obvious interest small businesses have in a free and open internet, the Chamber of Commerce opposes net neutrality. The Chamber wants to weaken or eliminate the Family and Medical Leave Act, the minimum wage, and the Americans with Disabilities Act. They want to cut every possible tax despite massive deficits, privatize Social Security, and just generally pursue the right-wing agenda down the line. Far from a business-friendly umbrella group for its 3 million members, the Chamber under Donahue's management has turned into a pay-to-play vehicle for right-wing causes and corporate dishonesty. As Eliot Spitzer put it, ''Tom Donohue has never once found a crime that he couldn't justify, as long as it was committed by one of his dues-paying members."

The national Chamber of Commerce isn't pro-business, in other words, it's just a fully captured right-wing organization that has been taken over by the Republican Party. There are state and local Chambers all over the country that are not right-wing, but are genuinely apolitical organizations fostering networking and business growth in local areas. Many trial lawyers in the South belong to local Chambers, unwittingly contributing to a massive lobbying operation in D.C. undercutting their ability to represent the public against abuses.

The core of the right-wing takeover the country lies in corrupting institutions like the U.S. Chamber and concentrating power in the hands of a small group of elite actors. These people sit on corporate boards, they know each other, they pay each others' salaries, they go to conferences in Davos, and they fund campaigns for both parties. They are willing to invest in substantial sums and make alliances with right-wing Christian Nationalist groups to eviscerate the power of the Federal government and prevent progressive policies from being effective.

The 2001 tax cuts, for instance, aside from giving billions to the wealthy, destroyed the capacity of the government to do much affirmative good work. By crippling governance, these elites are pushing the public to accept private goods in lieu of what should be public services. Private schools, bottled water, health food, private and chartered travel, elite medical institutions -- these are all part and parcel of building what John Edwards calls the 'Two Americas'. It really is quite stark. If you are in the business or political elite, compared to normal Americans, you live in different areas, have different crime rates, eat different food and drink different water, send your kids to different schools, travel more efficiently, are subject to a different set of laws, and have access to superior medicine. The public at large responds to this in different ways -- liberals get despondent and cynical, and blue collar ethnic whites begin to rely on right-wing church networks for what had been public services.

The key to building and sustaining this reactionary America is allowing individuals like Tom Donahue to act above the law for personal profit, while lobbying to weaken agencies that might hold them accountable. It fits perfectly into this destruction of the public sphere, and allows bad actors to profit from doing bad. We will not and cannot build a progressive America as long as we have an economy that gives incentives to people like this to steal from investors and use that money to lobby against us.

Tom Donahue is now facing pressure because of the corporate malfeasance in which he himself seems to have engaged. It's not clear if it will matter that he is corrupting the major face of American business, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. We'll see if corporate chieftains are willing to stand up for ethical practices, and if local Chambers speak out. It's not clear they will. And it's not clear that there is enough strength within the current Democratic caucus to go after such a powerful adversary, even knowing the obstacles that he's going to present down the road to a progressive agenda. Nevertheless, it's our job to understand the situation in our country, and to pressure our lawmakers, local Chambers, and business elites to correct the abuses they have allowed to happen.

After all, a president as stupid, venal, and petty as George W. Bush doesn't get elected and reelected without some serious institutional forces at work. Progressives would be seriously mistaken if we assume that when Bush leaves office those forces will go away.

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