Is The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Good for Business?

1007.verini-wJames Verini in the Washington Monthly (via Henry Farrell over at Crooked Timber):

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.

This sort of conflict doesn’t appear to bother [Thomas] Donohue [president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce]. One lobbyist at a trade association that shares many members with the Chamber describes Donohue’s tack as “imperial.” “If you don’t like it, you can leave. That’s their approach to members,” he says. Not all members, though. If there’s a consistent pattern to how the Chamber operates, it’s that it follows the money.