Joe Nocera: Chamber of Commerce lost its way in right turn

The New York TimesJuly 30, 2014 

Joe Nocera, New York Times columnist

Twice a year, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce convenes what it calls its Committee of 100 — which is composed of heads of regional chambers and Washington trade associations. They hear about the business climate from the chamber's longtime president, Thomas J. Donohue, and about the political landscape from Bruce Josten, its chief lobbyist.

In the summer of 2012, a few months before the elections, the bulk of the meeting, according to people who were there, was devoted to one subject: the importance of electing Republicans. The Chamber of Commerce — which once supported its share of pro-business Democrats — went almost completely to the Republican side, spending millions to oppose such Democratic senatorial candidates as Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts; Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who was up for re-election; and former Gov. Tim Kaine of Virginia. It ran ads against Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who often took pro-business positions, accusing her of being anti-jobs because she supported the Affordable Care Act.

The chamber had done much the same thing during the 2010 midterms, with great success, helping to hand the House of Representatives to the Republicans, thanks largely to the influx of Tea Party freshmen. Now, said the chamber brass, it was time to finish the job and give the country a Republican Senate as well.

As it turns out, the 2012 strategy was a flop. According to The Washington Post, the chamber's candidates lost in 13 of the 15 Senate races it poured money into. On the House side, the chamber went 4 for 22. Thus did the chamber find itself in the worst of all worlds. It had alienated Democrats, including the kind of pro-business Democrats who believe in the sort of practical politics that business prefers. Yet it had also helped usher in the Tea Party, only to discover that its strain of right-wing populism was as disdainful of business as it was of government.

What brings this to mind is the continuing fight over the Export-Import Bank. It is the classic kind of issue that used to unite the Republican Party and the Chamber of Commerce, pre-Tea Party: backing a government agency that supports trade by helping to finance deals that involve U.S. exports. That is also the kind of issue that is anathema to Tea Party ideologues, who view it as corporate welfare. The chamber has vowed a "full-court press" to save the Ex-Im Bank, but so far at least, the House is indifferent to its entreaties.

And it's not just the Ex-Im Bank. As Edward Luce noted this week in The Financial Times, this Congress won't countenance any of the things that business — and the chamber — care about. Immigration reform is dead. Congress won't raise the gas tax to fund the Highway Trust Fund. Revamping the corporate tax rate can't even get a hearing. And on, and on.

It is possible that the chamber didn't quite realize what it was getting when it helped elect those Tea Party freshmen in 2010 - few people did until they began to flex their muscles. But it is equally possible that it didn't care. ("The chamber is not an arm of either party and is not 'aligned' with either party," a spokesman told me in an email.)

In the 16 years he has run the Chamber of Commerce, Donohue has turned it into a potent force, in no small part by making it more partisan. But by being so blindly pro-Republican, the chamber "unleashed a Frankenstein that has spun out of control," said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, which monitors the Chamber of Commerce. That became most clear during the debt ceiling and deficit fights of the last few years — when the Tea Party Republicans seemed so determined to shrink government that they were even willing to default on the government's debt. The chamber reacted in horror.

I'm told that after the 2012 election, at yet another Committee of 100 gathering, a former Democratic congressman, Dave McCurdy, who now runs the American Gas Association, stood up and criticized Donohue for his "all-in" Republican strategy. He told Donohue that everybody in the room was pro-business, but they weren't all Republicans, and that if the chamber really wanted to be effective again, it needed to take on the Tea Party and the right wing of the Republican Party in favor of more moderate candidates of both parties.

As the 2014 midterms near, that seems to be the approach the Chamber of Commerce is taking. It has gotten involved in Republican primaries, siding with the more moderate Republican in a race - though perhaps it is more accurate to say the less radical Republican. At the most recent Committee of 100 meeting, Rob Engstrom, the chamber's national political director, told the group that the chamber planned to support Mary Landrieu, the Louisiana Democrat who is running for re-election to the Senate.

Better late than never.

The New York Times

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