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?

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