A Few Sour Notes In National Journal’s Chamber Piece

National Journal goes in a good direction this week, with a long look at a powerful Washington institution that gets too little attention: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The focus is the Chamber’s “American free enterprise campaign,” a national advocacy effort announced last year “to defend and advance America’s free enterprise values in the face of rapid government growth and attacks by anti-business activists.”

And the piece covers a lot of ground, about how the chamber is building “stronger alliances with conservative think tanks” and “partnerships with business-friendly state and local elected leaders of both parties on projects of mutual interest.”

While none of that is particularly surprising, the piece does nicely capture Chamber CEO Tom Donohue’s candid admission that the campaign has so far failed to generate hoped-for buzz, and points out that some see it as merely another fundraising scheme. The story also brings some healthy skepticism to what the Chamber says is its job-creation agenda, and pointedly shows just how mighty a force the Chamber can be in Capitol conversations.

(NJ requires an expensive subscription, but it’s read by le tout Washington, so we give it a look.)

The chamber can claim a significant share of the credit, or blame, for the current climate. The group is already a formidable advocate for its policy positions, spending a record $144 million last year to lobby Congress. That’s not only more than five times as much as the second-highest-spending interest group — ExxonMobil — it is nearly 60 percent more than the chamber spent on lobbying in 2008.

The chamber has been in the vanguard of business campaigns to weaken or kill Democratic-backed health care, climate-change, and financial regulation measures. The organization also plays hardball on the electoral field, recently plowing more than $1 million into ads supporting Brown’s election. And it may just be warming up. Because a January Supreme Court ruling now lets corporations tap their treasuries to explicitly endorse or oppose candidates in campaign ads, many experts believe that businesses will funnel millions of dollars through the chamber, dwarfing what the group spent on more-regulated issue-oriented ads in previous elections.

It’s too bad, though, that the story fails to challenge a key premise of the Chamber’s campaign, namely that there exists a significant segment of the American public that doesn’t share its belief in “free enterprise”—and that it makes sense to launch a multi-media campaign, aimed at everyone from business owners to school children, to convert the non-believers. Take this bit about collaborating with a like-minded think tank (our emphasis):

The chamber quickly discovered a meeting of the minds with the American Enterprise Institute, whose new president, Arthur Brooks, had already made defense of the free enterprise system a focal point of the think tank’s new mission statement. Since his hiring last year, Brooks has continually made the case, in speeches and articles, that free enterprise is not merely an economic system but also, as he put it in a recent interview, “a moral and a cultural bedrock issue.”

This belief frames the new American culture war “between the 70 percent who do [believe they’re better off in a free enterprise system] and the 20 percent who don’t,” Brooks said, alluding to the broad results of a poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. (Ten percent of respondents weren’t sure.) “People at the chamber,” he added, “do see the principles involved in much the same way we do.”

The poll in question (Brooks wrote about it in the WSJ) was conducted in March 2009 and the results are pretty interesting, and further exploration might have helped the NJ piece. Pew asked: “Generally, do you think people are better off in a free market economy, even though there may be severe ups and downs from time to time, or don’t you think so?

As the accompanying Pew analysis put it:

Seven-in-ten (70%) say that people are better off in a free market even if there are severe ups and downs at times. Since last fall, there has been a modest rise in the percentage saying a smaller government with fewer services is preferable to a bigger government with more services (from 42% to 48%).

But look what else Pew found:

At the same time, however, 54% say it is a good idea for the government to exert more control over the economy than it has in recent years. Even among Republicans, nearly a third (32%) endorses the idea of the government now exerting greater control over the economy.

As much as the Chamber and its pals want to make the campaign about the 70 versus the 20, isn’t the whole effort really directed toward that 54 percent? That’s a legitimate focus for the Chamber, but National Journal should have been clearer about it.

Also, with a piece that comes in at some 3,700 words, it’s also too bad National Journal didn’t find space to follow up on the heated flap over the Chamber’s claims about the size of its membership—three million or 300,000?—which started with a Mother Jones report, spilled into the mainstream, and, at a minimum, created widespread journalistic confusion.

Also unmentioned in the NJ piece were several high-profile defections, as documented by the WSJ, stemming from disputes over its stance on climate change, its general political posture, and other matters.

Finally, the very inside-the-Beltway magazine seems too content to let the Chamber blur the important legal differences that govern the Chamber’s lobbying and political activities.

Officials insist that the campaign’s name-gathering is distinct from the chamber’s lobbying and political activities and that the new database is not being shared with the group’s lobbying or political shop. “We will never be communicating with this group to go vote for X, Y, or Z, so it’s not political in that context. It’s not designed to be,” Anderson said in a late-January interview.
That may be a distinction without a meaningful difference, however. “If there comes a time when there is some legislation pending in Washington where the jobs issue is at the forefront, we may communicate with these people” and express the chamber’s views, he acknowledged.

The piece, in fact, doesn’t make quite clear enough where this advocacy effort fits in the Chamber’s wide array of activities. Is it a part of its effort to influence legislation, and thus subject to disclosure rules and other lobbying restrictions? Is it political activity, with its fundraising and spending governed by the rules and regulations of the Federal Election Commission? A little more clarity on this front would be a nice addition.

When it comes to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, more coverage is definitely in order.

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Holly Yeager is CJR's Peterson Fellow, covering fiscal and economic policy. She is based in Washington and reachable at holly.yeager@gmail.com.