Washington Post: Chamber of Commerce losing battles

By Dan Eggen and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post, July 22, 2010

Over the past year, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has spent nearly $3 million a week in opposition to President Obama's major agenda items, breaking all previous lobbying records and placing a political bet on the Republican Party.

But so far, it's not clear how well the gamble has paid off.

The Chamber's formidable lobbying prowess -- about $150 million spent since Obama took office -- did not stop passage of the administration's two signature achievements: the health-care overhaul and the Wall Street reform bill the president signed into law Wednesday. The nation's largest business group has lost battles over, among other things, student-loan legislation, credit-card reforms and a landmark measure that expands workers' rights to sue for equal pay.

The business lobby, which vows to spend $75 million or more on November's midterm election cycle, has also struggled to pick winners in this year's primaries. More than half a dozen Chamber-backed GOP candidates have gone down to defeat.

But the Chamber has had success in blocking other pieces of Democratic legislation or, in the case of health-care reform and financial regulation, shaping the final bills to the group's liking.

Thomas J. Collamore, the Chamber's senior vice president of communications, highlighted the group's efforts against a pro-union "card check" bill, cap-and-trade climate legislation and a proposed public insurance option.

"The Chamber's playing a critical role as the leading advocate for the business community in Washington," he said in a statement.

In addition to victories on union and environmental legislation, the Chamber has helped stall White House-backed legislation in the Senate that would require greater disclosure of political spending by corporations.

"They have in fact sought to defend and act from the principles which they believe in," said Dirk Van Dongen, president of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors and a longtime GOP lobbyist. "I think that's gutsy -- win, lose or draw. . . . My gosh, we are not here to wind up in the Rose Garden as trees and shrubs for signing ceremonies of legislation that we oppose."

While the Chamber historically has favored Republicans, it also has sought accommodation with Democrats in the past. But the group's relationship with the Obama administration has been increasingly tense. The Chamber's president and chief executive, Thomas J. Donohue, has railed against many of the administration's economic policies, and the group has nearly doubled its lobbying and political budget since 2008.

Deputy White House communications director Jen Psaki said the Obama administration still hopes to work with the group on matters on which they agree. But she added: "It is no secret that the primary focus of the Chamber of Commerce is raising money for Republican candidates."

The relationship between the administration and the Chamber was not always so fraught. The business group broke with, and angered, Republican leaders at the start of Obama's term by backing the $787 billion stimulus package.

Relations quickly soured as the White House forged ahead with health-care reform, credit-card regulations and other Democratic proposals that were anathema to the Chamber. The group emerged as one of the leading combatants in the battle over health-care legislation; several major insurers contributed up to $20 million to the Chamber for anti-reform advertising.

The group spent about $1 million on ads in support of the special Senate election of Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts and announced plans to spend $50 million -- now $75 million -- on the midterm elections. The vast majority of the group's spending is expected to favor Republicans.

And last week, the Chamber castigated White House economic policies in an open letter that said: "Instead of continuing their partnership with the business community and embracing proven ideas for job creation, they vilified industries while embarking on an ill-advised course of government expansion, major tax increases, massive deficits and job-destroying regulations."

Within hours, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett fired back at "rhetoric that fails to acknowledge the important steps this administration has taken every single day to meet our shared objectives."

The administration, stung by what it considers unfair criticism, has pushed back against the anti-business allegations and reached out to other groups, such as the Business Roundtable. But the feud also helps the White House distance itself from corporate interests, blunting complaints from the left that the administration is too cozy with big business.

The Chamber's strategy, meanwhile, has been to link itself even more closely to the Republican Party, which could pay off if the GOP wins control of the House in the fall.

But the strategy has also revealed a rift between the Chamber and some business leaders who favor a more moderate course. Margot Dorfman, chief executive of the U.S. Women's Chamber of Commerce -- an unrelated group that supported the Wall Street bill and other administration initiatives -- said the larger group "is championing the corporate giants" that provide a significant portion of its funding.

"We're interested in what's good for small business, and many times that's not what's good for big business," Dorfman said.

The national Chamber has suffered a series of high-profile defections over its opposition to climate-change legislation. Nike announced last fall that it was leaving the Chamber's board because of the issue, while Apple, Pacific Gas and Electric, and several other major companies quit the group altogether.

Despite such disagreements, the Chamber remains one of the most powerful lobbying forces in Washington. "The bottom line is, they've still got juice," said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). "They still have major influence on Capitol Hill."

Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

Copyright 2010 Washington Post