Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Where Is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Going?

Is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce turning into an extremist group?

It is a strange question to have to ask about the United States’ largest business lobbying organization. For ages, its political positions were calculated to be bland and inoffensive. The Chamber wouldn’t take a position that would pit large numbers of its members against each other, let alone one that the vast majority of Americans would quarrel with.

But that has been changing. For at least five years, commentators have been warning about corruption in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and headlines have todl about the Chamber’s increasingly polarized political views. In the past year, the Chamber has showed that it doesn’t mind arguing against the political views of 70 percent or even 90 percent of the public. In political terms, it seems to be turning into the National Rifle Association. One year ago, it staked its reputation on an election-season campaign against unions. This year, it has taken high-profile positions against health care, investors, and now, climate management. This fall, the Chamber is spearheading a lobbying blitz that aims to repeal broad areas of air pollutions laws and bring back the see-no-evil approach to climate change of the early Bush years.

This issue seems to have been the last straw for some Chamber members, leading to a series of high-profile resignations from the group since the middle of September. This kind of issue, by nature, favors some businesses at the expense of others. It is always the case that some businesses are trying to align themselves with the market on one side of the issue, while others try to position themselves to win favor with customers on the other side of the issue. By taking sides and favoring some businesses over others, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has given up the pretense of broadly representing the views of American businesses. Meanwhile, you only have to check the public opinion polls to see that it does not represent the views of any significant groups of voters.

Lobbyists go where the money is, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce must have decided that its previous broad pro-business approach wouldn’t be as profitable as representing selected big-money interests. Yet it gains most of its credibility from its 3 million members, and it now finds itself in a race against time, trying to complete its lobbying objectives before its membership fades away. That is not to say that time is running out quickly. The most notable resignation at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was Nike, which resigned from the board of directors, but maintained its membership in the organization, saying it would use its position as a member to try to change the organization’s policies. Hundreds of thousands of members may take this approach, but they will not keep trying forever. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, much as it opposes stockholder control of business corporations, is unlikely to yield to the wishes of its members before their patience finally runs out.