The U.S. Chamber: Agenda Set by CEOs Special Interests, Not Main Street Small Business

BSP Main StreetThe U.S. Chamber of Commerce repeatedly claims that its agenda represents the interests of small businesses.  However, recent investigations have shown that a relatively small number of large contributors dominate the U.S. Chamber’s funding.  Meanwhile “Main Street” Chambers of Commerce – the organizations most small businesses join, participate in, and support – have begun distancing themselves from the national organization in Washington, D.C.  This is because the U.S. Chamber increasingly puts the extreme agenda of Wall Street, CEOs and health insurers above the needs of Main Street businesses.

U.S. Chamber Campaigns Are Funded By Largest Special Interests

Largest Health Insurance Companies Paid Up To $20 Million for Anonymous Anti-Health Care Reform Ads.  In January 2010, National Journal uncovered the fact that ads run by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce were actually paid for in large part by the health insurance industry.  According to the report, five insurance companies anonymously gave the U.S. Chamber $20 million to fund ads against health reform at the same time that the companies’ trade group, AHIP, was insisting that they supported health reform.  [National Journal “Under the Influence” Blog, 1/12/2010]

Just 19 Anonymous Donors Contributed One-Third of the Chamber’s 2008 Income. In November 2009, the New York Times Greenwire reported that “The U.S. Chamber of Commerce often says it speaks for 3 million members, businesses both large and small. What it doesn’t promote as readily is that 19 supporters last year provided a third of the trade group’s total revenue.” One contributor alone gave the Chamber $15.3 million in 2008.  The Chamber has not disclosed any of the contributors’ names. [ Greenwire, 11/23/2009]

Actual U.S. Chamber Membership Is a Fraction of the Size It Claims To Represent. In October 2009, an investigation by Mother Jones magazine uncovered that the Chamber was playing games with its numbers, inflating its membership by 900%.  The Chamber was ultimately forced to admit it had just 300,000 members, not the 3 million it claimed to represent. [, 10/13/2009].  Financial records suggest that the group’s membership base may actually be significantly narrower.  The U.S. Chamber reported on its 2008 IRS disclosures that just 1,439 companies or people gave at least $5,000. [ Greenwire, 11/23/2009]    In contrast, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that there are approximately 23 million businesses in the country.

U.S. Chamber Lobbies for Extreme CEO-Driven Agenda

U.S. Chamber Lobbies for Wall Street Bonuses. The U.S. Chamber has vocally opposed any limits on the astronomical bonuses CEOs and Wall Street Executives receive – even those at firms like AIG which received taxpayer help to weather the crisis of 2008-09.  U.S. Chamber CEO Tom Donohue defended the bonuses saying those receiving multi-million dollar bonuses are “very unique kinds of people. They are like mad scientists.”  [Reuters, 1/12/2009]. The U.S. Chamber has written numerous letters to Congress, the SEC and the Obama Administration defending CEO bonuses against limits set by policymakers.  [Chamber Letters of 9/8/2009 (SEC); 7/30/2009 (House of Representatives) and 2/6/2009 (Treas. Sec. Timothy Geithner).

U.S. Chamber Is The Top Defender of Disgraced Wall Street CEOs. In addition to supporting policies narrowly targeted to benefit select CEOs and Wall Street, the U.S. Chamber frequently takes action to benefit some of the most notorious bad actors in the business community.  For example, Donohue defended AIG ex-CEO and former U.S. Chamber insider Hank Greenberg, shortly after he resigned from AIG in 2005 amid investigations of AIG’s accounting.  According to the Financial Times, “Donohue insist[ed] prosecutors are at risk of ‘killing the goose that laid the golden egg’ by taking executives to task over accounting methods that are a ‘series of guidelines.’”  Greenberg sat on the Chamber board until his ouster from AIG and, with AIG, controlled a foundation that had contributed $19 million to the Chamber in 2003 and 2004.  [Financial Times, 4/3/2005].  In another example, The U.S. Chamber urged the Supreme Court to overturn insider trading conviction of Qwest ex-CEO Joe Nacchio, currently serving six years for selling $52 million of Qwest stock in 2001 based on inside information.  Donohue was on the Qwest board and its compensation committee that paid Nacchio $81 million in 2001, one of the worst years in the company’s history.  [Denver Post, 4/27/2009]

“Main Street” Local Chambers Breaking with the U.S. Chamber

Local Chambers: “They Don’t Represent Me.” Many local Chambers of Commerce – the bodies closest to the main street small businesses that the U.S. Chamber says it represents – are distancing themselves from the U.S. Chamber.  Local chambers and business associations who broke from the U.S. Chamber over the past year include:  San Jose Chamber of Commerce, Greater New York Chamber of Commerce, Eastern Connecticut Chamber of Commerce, Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, Aspen Chamber of Commerce and Resort Association, the  Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber, and the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce.  The CEO of the Greater New York Chamber of Commerce bluntly stated: “They don’t represent me.” [Mother Jones, 10/14/2009]

Members Complain About Closed Policy-Making Process: After Nike quit the U.S. Chamber board in September, its director of government relations said the Chamber’s climate change policy was “not being made at the board-of-director level, because we’re a member of the board of directors.  We were not consulted.”  Several committee members apparently raised the issue of how they could influence or change the Chamber’s climate policy, according to a representative of one of them, but “were told that basically this was not the forum to do it.  There’s basically no outlet for changing the policy.” [Mother Jones, 10/7/2009]

Small Business Leaders Disagree with the Chamber on Support For the CFPA: Despite the U.S. Chamber’s public opposition to the Consumer Financial Protection Agency, business leaders have been vocal in their support for the CFPA.  Business for Shared Prosperity, American Business Leaders for Financial Reform and the American Sustainable Business Council are among the business leaders that have voiced their support for the legislation.