After brief pleasantries on the phone the other day, Thomas J. Donohue got down to business with a top health insurance executive. "We're in a new year and a new time," Donohue said smoothly. "Can we put you on the list and get your money?"
The executive said yes, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was $100,000 richer. So, in effect, was President Bush's push to rein in trial lawyers and lower taxes.
The chamber is at the forefront of a quiet revolution in business lobbying. Corporate groups now raise big money to advance broad issues, largely to help the Republican president enact his fiscal agenda. That's a long step away from what trade associations traditionally did: concentrate on narrow concerns while shunning partisan spats.
The big money has become commonplace in day-to-day lobbying, and few people are more responsible for that than the outspoken Donohue. When he became the group's president in 1997, the chamber took in only about $600,000 from its largest corporate members. Last year, collections for that category, called the President's Advisory Group, totaled $90 million.
That's a major reason Bush will rely on him and the chamber this year. "When the White House looks for the go-to people on business issues," said fellow Bush enthusiast Dirk Van Dongen of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors (NAW), "the chamber is among the very first groups that it talks to."
Speaking privately, several trade association heads say their members often embrace Bush initiatives and are glad the chamber and other big groups help organize their support for those issues. But some also worry that the more controversial the president's policies become, the harder it will be for them to maintain their unalloyed enthusiasm. And if they abandon the president on big issues, they risk losing administration backing for parochial matters critical to their industries.
Critics see a broader problem. They say the superior funding by corporate sources is inevitably unfair. "An average citizen speaks only at a whisper in Washington," said Celia Viggo Wexler, a vice president of citizens' advocacy group Common Cause. "But the chamber and other big business associations, thanks to their clout and fundraising, speak with a megaphone."
"The Chamber of Commerce represents the people who have an overwhelming share of the resources to deploy," said Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the Democratic-leaning Center for American Progress. That kind of imbalance, he said, "can overwhelm the voices on the other side."
The chamber eagerly deploys every weapon in the lobbying arsenal and can be counted on by the president to get things done. It has demonstrated its success repeatedly in the past four years on issues as disparate as loosening ergonomics standards and creating health-savings accounts.
Its lobbyists blanket Capitol Hill. Its Web sites and telemarketers stir up voters back home. It donates generously to political campaigns coffers, and it bankrolls multimillion-dollar ad campaigns for the politicians and policies it supports.
Few organizations can muster that much firepower, except perhaps the most prominent groups the chamber will go head-to-head against this year -- the trial lawyers' lobby on legal reform issues and AARP on Social Security private accounts.
The chamber's clout is a turnaround for the nation's largest business organization. When Donohue arrived, it was losing money and was widely distrusted by Washington's corporate community for having backed President Bill Clinton's Democratic health care plan.
Donohue turned the chamber into a money machine by radically remaking it. He jettisoned its resource-draining business magazine and television operation, both of which had been the pride of his predecessor, Richard L. Lesher. He also spent freely to invigorate the organization's policy and lobbying arms. The lobbying staff that had numbered only two is now at least 18 strong.
During the first two years of Donohue's rebuilding drive, the chamber's budget remained in deficit. Then, as corporate chieftains gained confidence in the rejiggered organization, donations began to pick up. Now, the chamber is a behemoth.