Fighting Democracy and Destroying America’s Economic Future

This has been quite a year for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a year of blunders as well as successes. On balance, it appears the chamber is winning more often than it’s losing. My concern is who’s benefiting from those victories: The American public or just a few large companies?

This year numerous high-profile members quit the U.S. Chamber over its climate policy (Apple, Exelon, PG&E, PSEG, Levi Strauss & Co, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, and Mohawk Paper). Nike resigned from the chamber’s Board of Directors, while Johnson & Johnson, General Electric, Alcoa, Duke, Entergy, Microsoft, and Royal Dutch Shell said the chamber doesn’t represent their views on climate.

Under President Thomas Donahue’s leadership, the chamber has undergone a dramatic shift. Where it previously focused on legislation, it now, thanks to a hefty war chest, invests heavily in electoral politics. The chamber supported the winner in 39 of 52 recent mid-term Congressional races, spending around $50 million in the 2010 election cycle.

Yet the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has suffered damage to its reputation as a result of its claim to speak for three million large and small businesses members across the country. In fact, this figure inaccurately includes companies affiliated with local chambers, not the U.S. Chamber itself. As few as 19 large companies provided one-third of the trade group’s total revenue in 2009. One company (or person) provided the organization with $15.3 million in 2009, an amount representing more than 10 percent of it’s $147 million revenues. Another gave $8.2 million, and a third gave $2.9 million. Documents filed with the IRS in 2008, show that a small group of contributors paid more than $1 million apiece to the chamber. Unfortunately, federal laws do not require this information to be disclosed.

So, who is the chamber really representing? It sure isn’t small business or average American employees or even American interests at all. With a Board that includes executives from some of the world’s biggest global brands (think Ford, Verizon, Lockheed Martin, Viacom and GlaxoSmithKline), it looks increasing more like the “International” Chamber of Commerce.

This newly-minted Chamber has started flexing some serious muscle. Its spending on lobbying exploded to more than $90 million in 2009 from less than $20 million a year. In 1997, the group had two lobbyists working full-time on Capitol Hill. In its most recent lobbying disclosure filing, it named 98 inside lobbyists and 90 others working on its behalf from outside firms, a virtual battalion of arm twisters that helped kill global warming regulation and chemical reform.

But that’s not even the scary part. The chamber’s mission isn’t limited to influencing the elected branches of government. The New York Times recently reported the U.S. Chamber told the Supreme Court in a brief that “a central function of the chamber is to represent the interests of its members in important matters before the courts.” Particularly, it seems, the Supreme Court.

According to the Times, “the chamber now files briefs in most major business cases”. The sides it supported in the last Supreme Court term won 13 of 16 cases. Six of those were decided with a majority vote of five justices. One of these cases was Citizens United, the now infamous ruling in which the chamber called on the court to lift restrictions on campaign spending and guarantee what it called “free corporate speech.”

With the increasing help of the U.S. Chamber, the Times went on to report, “the Roberts court, which has completed five terms, ruled for business interests 61 percent of the time, compared with 46 percent in the last five years of the court led by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who died in 2005, and 42 percent by all courts since 1953. The chamber had urged the court to hear… an enormous sex-discrimination class-action lawsuit against Wal-Mart, (that it claims) posed ‘grave risks’ for American business… A suit by eight states against power companies over carbon dioxide ‘has potentially disastrous implications for the U.S. business community.’”

Where will this all lead and who might be in a position to stop it? A post-election survey of the politically altered landscape leaves little hope and few opportunities. But one clear opportunity for concerned businesses to play a greater role is through the newly created American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC). Looking toward 2011, the ASBC, whose members represent more than 65,000 small and medium size companies, will continue to build its voice, presence and power around key policy issues and the belief that a prosperous economy is fully compatible with environmental stewardship and long-term sustainability. The ASBC will also provide businesses with the opportunity to join forces with environmentalists, human rights activists and labor in an orchestrated collaboration to mitigate the U.S. Chamber’s influence.

While small and medium size businesses have never had a significant influence on policy and legal matters, and have instead had to focus on making payroll, managing competition from big box stores and struggling to convince banks that they are a safe credit risk, events of this past year have awakened an army of influencers and given them critical mass. While smaller businesses don’t have their own government affairs departments in D.C. or lobbying line items in their budgets, collectively they can work through the ASBC to become a vital force with a unified voice that calls for us to move toward times that ought to be better, not worse.

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