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Washington Monthly: Show Him the Money

Tom Donohue scares millions of dollars out of corporations and Republicans. But is his U.S. Chamber of Commerce good for business?

Thomas J. Donohue, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, has a well-developed talent for self-promotion. He makes a point of being the last person on any stage, and he leaves no detail to chance. The Chamber’s event staff is famously fastidious: one of Donohue’s parties involved corralling a Clydesdale horse into the Chamber’s lobby. Such grandiosity is of a piece with how Donohue treats his station. He travels in a chauffeured Lincoln and a leased jet, and his salary, $3.7 million last year, makes him the sixth highest paid lobbyist in the country.

This requires funding, which Donohue secures with exceptional skill. Among his office decorations is a desk plaque that reads, “SHOW ME THE MONEY.” “He used to pound his fist on the desk and say, ‘Show me the money!’” a former Chamber lobbyist recalls. “He got his rocks off on it.”

He leads fund-raising seminars. The same lobbyist recounted what he learned. “Donohue said, first, you walk into the room with the CEO and you hit the key issues,” said the lobbyist. “Then you sit in closer to them. And you make ‘the ask.’ You look right into their eyes and say, ‘As a result of what the Chamber is doing for your industry, I need a hundred thousand dollars.’ Or, ‘I need a million dollars.’ And then you smile and you shut your mouth. Your instinct is to start talking because you’re nervous. Don’t. Just smile and stare. And wait.” The lobbyist, who’d been trained well by Donohue, leaned forward and stared at me as I sat listening. I became nervous. I shifted in my chair. I started laughing, then stopped. He just stared. After a long pause he leaned back and said, “I tell you, there were people in that room who pissed in their pants.”

The ask works. In 2009 the Chamber doled out somewhere in the area of $120 million on lobbying alone, five times what its nearest cohort, Exxon Mobil, spent. Much of that money went to an advertising and grassroots blitz attacking the congressional health care legislation, making the Chamber very likely the biggest spender in the debate. In the weeks leading up to health care’s passage in March, it was spending $800,000 a day trying to defeat the Democratic legislation. Livid that the law went through, the Chamber has now pledged to funnel $50 million—more than twice as much as the entire cash holdings of the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee put together (as of late May)—into an estimated forty House races and ten Senate races this fall. About eight of every ten dollars of Chamber political donations go to Republicans.

With such torrents of Chamber money raining down on the political process, it’s rather ironic that many Americans believe the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to be part of the government. But, in a way, it’s also fitting. With its legions of lobbyists, policy analysts, economists, and attorneys, its own rapid-response media center and law firm, its hundreds of international chapters and steady stream of officials, legislators, and foreign potentates flowing through its immense bronze-relief doors on H Street, the Chamber does act like a federal agency—or like a third political party on permanent campaign. “The Chamber views itself as a shadow-government policymaking body,” a former Chamber economist, Lawrence Hunter, said.

Such policy, of late, has consisted of mounting major battles against regulatory initiatives emanating from the Obama White House. In addition to doing its best to block health care legislation, the Chamber also tried desperately to fend off the financial reform bill passed by the Senate on May 21. Meanwhile, its campaign to influence environmental legislation has relied in part on casting doubt on the exigency, even the existence, of climate change.

The Chamber has lost major policy battles during the Obama presidency, and its resistance to reform has also been costly. When, last fall, the Chamber made news with what was effectively a rejection of climate science, several major companies, including Apple Inc., dropped their membership in the organization—an exodus that provided a welcome public relations boost for the White House. But under the curious rules of Washington lobbying, losses can be as good as wins. “The worst thing to happen to Tom is to have an issue resolved, even to his own favor, because then he can’t raise any more funds on it,” says John Schulz, a former editor at the trade journal Traffic World, who’s covered Donohue for twenty-five years. “There’s nothing he can’t make a dollar on.”

Many of the Chamber’s efforts are undoubtedly good for certain businesses. Wall Street would prefer to avoid further financial regulation. Oil companies would prefer to avoid further environmental regulation. Whether the Chamber—which counts as members everyone from Goldman Sachs to British Petroleum, Microsoft to Wal-Mart, PepsiCo to General Motors, and hundreds of thousands of more obscure businesses in between—is good for business as a whole is another matter. With unemployment, statistical and personal, on the mind of every officeholder up for reelection this year, Republicans and Democrats claim to agree on one thing: small business will be the engine of job growth after the Great Recession. But while the Chamber has as legitimate a claim to representing this sector as any organization around—96 percent of its members have fewer than 100 employees—it is also beholden to a cadre of multinationals whose interests are often inimical to those of small business. In 2008, a third of its revenues came from just nineteen companies.  



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