CAMPUS PROGRESS: Tom Donohue's US Chamber is Biggest Obstacle to Progressive Change

March 4, 2013
Jake Blumgart
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(originally posted on June 21, 2010)

The Chamber of Commerce is one of the biggest obstacles to progressive change in the United States. Claiming to represent the interests of American business, it is the largest lobbying group in the nation, with over 300,000 anonymous dues paying members and a staggeringly deep war chest and immense influence in both parties. From its cyclopean headquarters on H Street and Connecticut Avenue NW, the Chamber mobilizes its diverse membership to combat everything from environmental regulation to minimum wage increases.

If there is one man who can take credit for the organization’s immense power, it’s Chamber CEO and President Thomas Donohue, a 72-year-old with steely blue eyes and a white mane that rivaled Ted Kennedy’s. The Brooklyn-born Donohue is a notoriously aggressive lobbyist, known for his sharp tongue and an ability to raise fast money from large corporate donors. Ironically, he has never worked in the private sector. After getting his Masters of Business Administration at Adelphi University, in New York, he worked for non-profits like the Boy Scouts of America, universities like Fairfield University in Connecticut, and the federal government, spending time at the United States Postal Service until 1976, when he began working for the Chamber as a lobbyist. Eight years later he became President of the American Trucking Association, the trucking industry’s lobby, where he quadrupled the budget and regularly butted heads with the Teamsters Union.

Today, Donohue brings that same pugnacious spirit and fundraising acumen to the Chamber. In the last year, he has led his organization against every single one of the Obama administration’s major policy initiatives. In 2009, the Chamber spent a stunning $144.5 million dollars on lobbying and organizing, almost entirely in an oppositional capacity. As a recent Los Angeles Times article noted the Chamber's spending is “well beyond the spending of individual labor unions or the Democratic or Republican national committees.” (By comparison, the AFL-CIO almost spent $4 million last year, while SEIU came close to spending $3 million.)

After the Affordable Care Act passed, Donohue hardly seemed phased by the setback, earmarking $50 million for a midterm election campaign against those who voted for the law. "[It will be] the most aggressive voter-education and issue-advocacy effort in our nearly hundred-year history," he recently promised. On the financial regulation front, Donohue organized a strong show of corporate solidarity, flying in dozens of representatives from businesses large and small to speak on behalf of the politically tainted Wall Street firms. Almost every other major bill that the Chamber opposed, from the Employee Free Choice Act to climate change legislation, has been stalled or relegated to the dustbin of congressional history.

The Chamber hasn’t always operated so smoothly. When Donohue took command in 1997, the 85 year old organization was pretty close to being shuffled off to the dustbin itself. When the organization endorsed the Clinton’s health care initiative in the early 1990s, many conservatives urged its members to flee. Although the Chamber tacked right after 1994, membership sagged to 180,000 and the budget stood at a mere $60 million. Collections from the Chamber’s large corporate donors maxed out at around $600,000. (According to one profile in the Washington Post, Donohue managed to raise $90 million from this same group in 2005.) On Capitol Hill, the Chamber’s withered lobbying arm only claimed two full-time lobbyists.

Then Donohue stepped in, fresh from presiding over the American Trucking Association, and rapidly revamped the Chamber of Commerce, expanding its membership, budget, and lobbying capacity. When Bush claimed the White House in 2000, Donohue was well situated to spearhead the business community’s unwavering support of the new president’s policies. Along with five other business associations—dubbed the Gang of Six—the Chamber led what the Washington Post described as “a quiet revolution in business lobbying,” putting the full weight of their considerable influence behind the president’s ultra-conservative agenda, instead of focusing on the parochial concerns of their members. On issues ranging from Social Security privatization and CAFTA to tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, Donohue and his counterparts served the president as personal tacticians, even acting as whips for key Congressional votes.

By the time Bush's presidency drew to a close, Donohue’s had transformed the Chamber of Commerce into an institution of immense power and influence. His attempt to head off progressive control of Washington failed, despite the fact that the association spent more money on the 2008 Senate races than any other organization, donations that went disproportionately to right-wing candidates.

The Chamber can afford to tough out even the most adversarial political climate. Under Donohue’s guiding hand,120,000 businesses have been added to the membership rolls, the annual budget exploded from $60 million to $200 million, and the Chamber’s lobbying power increased exponentially, with more than 18 full-time lobbyists on staff and well over 100 working on retainer.

But the opening years of Obama’s presidency have brought troubles to the Chamber. Donohue’s obstinate opposition to meaningful climate legislation has been questioned by some members of his own organization who believe the United States needs energy reformsis. At the end of last year Apple and three of the nation’s most prominent electrical companies quit the organization because of its reactionary position on global warming. Nike resigned from its position on the board for similar reasons. (The issue was never put to an internal vote, and members who expressed a desire for such a democratic procedure were shut down.) Donohue’s reaction was typically truculent: “Members come and go all the damn time,” he snarled in a Politico interview. But never have such distinguished companies left in a public fashion over a policy dispute. The incidents allowed Obama to counterattack, painting the Chamber as an extremist organization, while communicating with major corporations outside the organization’s umbrella.

Despite these setbacks, and the passage of the health care bill despite the Chamber’s best efforts, things are looking up for Donohue’s outfit. The climate bill caused so much friction within the organization; now there are doubts about whether the legislation will ever see the light of day. Meanwhile, the upcoming midterm elections are likely to favor Chamber-friendly candidates, an outcome encouraged by the donations pouring into the organization’s coffers from corporations and wealthy individuals upset by Obama’s progressive inclinations. These funds will be pumped into the midterm efforts of the “Friends of the Chamber of Commerce,” the Chamber’s activist wing, which boasts six million individual members. Thus far the membership lists have been used for lobbying, but in the coming months swarms of ginned up Friends are expected to take to the streets in massive get-out-the-vote drives.

Things are looking up for Donohue’s long game too. The recent Supreme Court Citizens United ruling emboldened the corporate world to spend its money freely on politics and gave advocacy groups, like the Chamber, the ability to directly target candidates. And as many political journalists have recently noted, the association’s coffers are deep enough to match the spending of either major political party. With the ability to command resources on that scale, the Chamber can expect ever greater sway over America’s political future. As Donohue himself recently said, “People seem to listen to you more when you’ve got a bagful of cash.”

In His Own Words

"We plan to build a grass-roots business organization so strong that when it bites you in the butt, you bleed." –Donohue’s reaction to the amped up populist rhetoric, from both parties, during the 2008 primary season. Los Angeles Times, January 8, 2008

“Is the science right? Is science not right? I don’t know…If we got the EPA [regulating carbon emissions] then we are in deep sh-- as a country. You want to see unemployment? You will see some.”

–Donohue refusing to acknowledge that climate change is legitimate and predicting doom if anything is done about it Politico, October 26, 2009

“[Health care reform] is a wrong and unfortunate decision that ignores the will of the American people…. Should the legislation passed by the House today become law, the Chamber will work through all available avenues—regulatory, legislative, legal, and political—to fix its flaws and minimize its potentially harmful impacts.” –Donohue on the House’s decision to pass the health care bill, Chamber of Commerce press release, March 21, 2010

"Workers have every right to organize themselves into unions. But where I part company is when they launch these corporate campaigns in which they go out and try to savage the companies and force them to [accept a contract] by beating up on customers and bankers and suppliers. That's a return to the gangster tactics of the 1930s, only now the guys with brass knuckles are wearing blue suits."