How Powerful is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce?

Is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce “the single most influential organization in American politics, outside the Republican and Democratic Parties’ apparatuses” as journalist Alyssa Katz contends in her new book, The Influence Machine, or is it just a very powerful yet frequently unsuccessful lobbying firm, as Lee Drutman asserts in his review of Katz’s book?

Is it really the case that the Chamber has “concentrated the energies embedded in our democracy as potently as any the nation has ever seen”? After all, the organization tried to stop Richard Cordray’s nomination [to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau], but failed—just as it failed to stop the passage of Dodd-Frank itself. It could not block the Affordable Care Act, either, or dozens of other pieces of legislation the Democrats pushed through. The Chamber couldn’t even dissuade its friends in the Republican House of Representatives from defunding the Export-Import Bank, as happened this summer.

The Chamber of Commerce is certainly a well-heeled and influential organization, and it has grown more so in recent years. But Katz exaggerates its power. I suppose that kind of hype helps you sell a book to a publisher. Yet ironically it also underscores a hidden truth about how the Chamber and Washington lobbying operate: the more they exaggerate the dangers of this or that government action to their corporate paymasters, the more they get paid, whether they win or not.

In Drutman’s review, which appears in the November/December 2015 issue of our magazine, he goes beyond the four corners of the book to take a longer view of the Chamber from its creation as the brainchild of President William Taft through its first-supportive and then oppositional stance on The New Deal, to its rabid anti-communism during the Cold War, and finally to the 1997 coup that ushered in its present leader, Tom Donahue.

Another key turning point in the Chamber’s history came in the mid-1990s, when the then somewhat moderate Chamber initially supported, then opposed, the Clinton health care plan. That early support angered conservatives within the association, and especially Republicans in Congress. Eventually, the Chamber relented, and cemented a strong alliance with Republicans that would also involve a much more aggressive stance on a wide range of issues—including the organization’s position in Washington.

In 1997, the Chamber ditched its leader, Richard Lesher, because of his decision to side with the Clinton White House on health care. In his place, Tom Donohue—a man whose aggressive nature earned him nicknames like “George C. Patton”—took charge. In 1998, writes Katz, Donohue told a major donor, “My goal is simple—to build the biggest gorilla in this town—the most aggressive and vigorous business advocate our nation has ever seen.” Donohue’s pitch to the big companies was that he would be their front organization.

You’ll want to read the whole review to get his full take on not only the quality of The Influence Machine, but his assessment of the actual influence and effectiveness of the Chamber. Perhaps they aren’t pure unadulterated evil, and maybe they don’t win every battle (even when they lose), but they’re important enough to warrant understanding their true place in our political battles and the real cumulative impact they have on our laws and culture. Drutman makes a solid effort at doing that for us.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.