Chamber of Commerce backlash

By Katrina vanden Heuvel
Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Decades ago the Chamber of Commerce enjoyed a Norman Rockwell-like image in the minds of many Americans: working in the interest of mom-and-pop stores everywhere and sponsoring community events such as Little League baseball and holiday parades.

And while there may still be some local chambers that fit that bill, this election cycle has given a much clearer picture of what the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is all about - except when it comes to lobbying to make their health care more expensive, privatize their social security and outsource their jobs .

The U.S. Chamber stated that its goal has been to spend $75 million on a midterm election that will break fundraising records. Its war chest is devoted almost entirely to defeating Democrats who take on big corporate interests. While Chamber President and chief executive Tom Donohue would have Americans believe that his organization is still working in the interest of small and mid-sized businesses, that's simply not true. In 2008, a third of its income came from just 19 members - big companies to whom the chamber is beholden . That probably explains why only 249 of 7,000 local chambers are now members, and why more and more are dropping out.

Just days after the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision opened the floodgates for corporations to spend on electioneering, Donohue announced a budget of $40 million for "the most aggressive voter-education and issue-advocacy effort in our nearly hundred-year history." That budget quickly ballooned to $75 million as the money rolled in from undisclosed foreign and national corporate interests. It's the perfect stealth arrangement for members - they remain anonymous while the chamber does the dirty work to take down the candidates and policies they oppose.

In what historian Tony Judt described as "the age of forgetting," it's important to track the historical evolution of the U.S. Chamber's power and politics. In 1971, corporate lawyer and future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell - a board member of Phillip Morris and its defender against health charges - wrote to the chamber board what is now known as "the Powell Memo." Serving as a corporate Paul Revere, Powell sounded the alarm on the threat posed to capitalism and corporate power by consumer rights crusader Ralph Nader, an emerging Beltway public interest community and its Democratic Party allies.

Powell - who would be appointed to the court just two months after the memo - urged the Chamber to rally against these new corporate watchdogs. "Political power is necessary," he wrote, and "when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination. . . The Chamber [should] consider assuming a broader and more vigorous role in the political arena."

In the decades since, and most brazenly in this election, the Chamber has emerged as a 1,000-pound gorilla of corporate political revanchism, fighting for Big Tobacco, Energy and Finance.

Now, with a new deluge of well-organized corporate money polluting our campaign finance system, perhaps the best antidote to the chamber's reactionary agenda is organized people - including organized business people.

Take, for example, the American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC), a recently formed group that has received far too little mainstream media attention. The ASBC already has a network of 24 business organizations representing 60,000 businesses and more than 150,000 entrepreneurs, owners, executive, investors, business professionals and individuals from diverse regions and sectors. Its member organizations include the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce, the National Latino Farmers & Ranchers Trade Association, the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce and the Association for Enterprise Opportunity.

Executive Director David Levine said that the ASBC was founded because of the tremendous growth in the number of businesses that believe in pursuing "the triple bottom line" - practicing social and environmental responsibility, as well as creating profitable businesses.

"The piece that was missing is that they weren't necessarily engaged in policy," says Levine.

Too often, the U.S. Chamber position is accepted as the single business voice. "So," as Levine argues, "sound policies - especially those bringing financial, social, or environmental benefits - haven't been implemented because the policy dialogue in this country gets cut short because at the end of the sentence is 'it's bad for business.' Bad for whose business? Bad for business in which greed becomes the overarching goal at the expense of everything else. We're really offering the media and legislators an opportunity to engage in dialogue with forward-thinking business leaders."

Recently, the ASBC partnered with the Investor Environmental Health Network to send a letter to Congress urging support for reform of the Toxic Substance Control Act. It was signed by investors with $35 billion - not chump change - in assets under management. ASBC has also taken progressive positions on public financing of elections, the Bush tax cuts, offshore tax havens, and climate and energy policies.

In the wake of the Citizens United decision, polls showed majorities - across our fractured political spectrum - anxious about overweening corporate power. Given the U.S. Chamber's recent spending spree and the regressive policies it has sought to advance, those fears seem more than justified.

If we're to successfully challenge unbridled corporate power, new and unlikely coalitions will be needed - including partnering with an enlightened business community.

Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor and publisher of the Nation and writes a weekly column for The Post.

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