The Politely Evil Empire

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

The Politely Evil Empire
Illustration by Patrick Faricy

Meet America's business cheerleaders.

One TV ad claimed Sen. Bill Nelson voted to cut $500 billion from Medicare to fund Obamacare. The assertion was widely debunked.

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.

U.S. chamber CEO Tom Donohue believes in small government, except when it comes to corporate welfare.
United States Department of Defense
U.S. chamber CEO Tom Donohue believes in small government, except when it comes to corporate welfare.
Aspen, Colorado, business owner Auden Schendler urged his city's chamber to break with the national organization. "They've been on the wrong side of every issue in U.S. history," he claims.
Hal Williams
Aspen, Colorado, business owner Auden Schendler urged his city's chamber to break with the national organization. "They've been on the wrong side of every issue in U.S. history," he claims.

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.

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

Think of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce 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 Co. 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 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.

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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4 comments
bvckvs
bvckvs topcommenter

It's not "America's" business cheerleaders.  It's just the Republican Party's business cheerleaders.  Conservatives have a nasty habit of portraying themselves as representing America, even though they hate this country's government and the liberal lifestyle it fosters.

holmantx
holmantx topcommenter

It's now the Chamber of Crony Capitalism Commerce.  If the CofC was for small business, they would be against amnesty.  Because this is the biggest threat to working America.  It will raise unemployment and depress wages.  Wall Street and Washington D.C. sees cheap labor and new voters.

Flyover country sees 50% unemployment at the entry level and the youth.

And that 20 million will explode to 40.

Reagan granted amnesty to 3 million.  We got 20 mil now.

In twenty years, were Rome.

gordonhilgers
gordonhilgers

I simply do not know about anyone else (male or female) or anybody else (male or female), but I have quietly been laughing at the "tyranny of manners" for over 33 years.  Why?  I grew-up with a mother addicted to Victorian manners grafted onto her by the sulky, white Southern Amerikon version--which had literally nothing to do with the ineffably and utterly porcine Queen Victoria. 

No wonder the absolutely control-freak victimizer, a lady who ruled the British Empire at its very, very apex with an iron fist she creamed with hand cream every day, simply to keep her hands soft, wanted no pretty women around her.  I have long suspected Queen Victoria (I could be incorrect, factually at least) was terribly body-insecure, especially in Britain and Scotland, land of some of the most lovely and enchanting beauties anywhere in the world. 

Cover-up and knock-off, quoth the Queen. 

Huzzahs!!!  The peons doth answereth. 

While indeed there is something to the mystery of clothing-covered flesh, one would have thought the United States was a little more interested in freedom for women in the 21st Century, but here in Texas, the zealously fundamentalist rely upon a tyranny of manners so nastily secretive it is almost ridiculous that almost no one cannot see the game being played by those jealous and absurd souls on crack for Christianity, false-pride version. 

I'm not flying out of here anytime soon, mainly because I have been shackled into poverty by the great Tit Mice of the Texas branch variety.  Honestly.  Sexualizing God.  Imagine how the most powerful entity anywhere to everywhere feels about being confined to being "simply another sky-guy". 

Oh well.  Not that I care.  I will call a spade a spade, even if I am talking shovels and gravediggers here, and not about the white supremacist variety of slang that has that "certain twang" to it no matter who says such dumb things. 

Business is all over the positivity biz these days, mainly because they believe in the old chestnut of "Strength Thru Joy" and consider those of us who speak-up and complain "the nugatories" and send us to "the mystery zone" even if we know what we see, hear, smell, taste and even think, feel, and intuit.  No matter.  The man writing on this computer does not need the imprimatur of soulless "better than thous" who honestly believe they have the lock on God's pearly gates. 

I'd rather laugh at old Pearl Jam records and comment about the sexual metaphorical permutations of "String of Pearls" and "LaGrange". 

Texas, after all, is "the dollar store", and I am not a greenback.  Thank you vrey much.  This is not Johnny Cash or Secret Piano Dude.  Just a regular guy who writes quite well. 

 
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