WaPo’s Chamber Piece Misses a Few Notes

The paper reports the lobby group is "losing," but doesn't hear the ringing of cash registers

The Washington Post looks at the recent record of the Chamber of Commerce and puts a lot in the loss column. But readers would get a truer portrait of the organization, and the city it operates in, if the piece pointed out that sometimes those losses can still be wins.

As I’ve said before, the Chamber is a big player in Washington. It’s good at setting the terms for the conversations it wants to have, and it has a lot of conversations. The WSJ reported this week that the Chamber is joining with other business and advocacy groups to put pressure on members of Congress to block expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts. Remember how health care was a hot topic during town hall meetings last August? Well these guys want to do the same with taxes this summer.

For the big role it plays, the Chamber gets far too little attention from the business press. The Post has been taking a closer look lately, including a story last week about deteriorating relations between the White House and the Chamber.

Today’s story follows naturally from that one, trying to assess how successful the Chamber has been over the past year fighting President Obama’s top priorities—and spending nearly $3 million a week in the process. Yes, that’s $3 million a week.

The hed sets an unmistakably negative tone:

Chamber of Commerce losing battles against Obama

The Post backs that up with this:

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.

All that is certainly true. The story mentions that the Chamber has also “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.”

When it comes to lobbying, I think “shaping the final bills to the group’s likings” is pretty high on the to-do list, and shouldn’t be discounted. It’s too bad the Post didn’t point out a few of the ways the Chamber had influenced those major reforms, to help readers judge just how influential the group had been.

The Post also points to the Chamber’s efforts against card-check legislation on union elections, a cap-and-trade climate bill, and the public option in health care reform, as well as what looks like a victory, at least for now, against a bill that would require more disclosure of money that corporations spend on politics. Again, those seem like pretty big wins for a business group.

But there’s a bigger problem with the Post piece, and that’s its failure to recognize that the stunning budgets at the Chamber are proof of a different kind of success.

The group plans to spend “$75 million or more” on the midterm elections, and, the story points out, its lobbying and political budget have nearly doubled since 2008.

There’s an excellent profile of Thomas J. Donohue, president and CEO of the Chamber, in the current Washington Monthly that shows how much raising money has become central to the organization’s mission.

James Verini, author of the Monthly piece, does a lot of good reporting, including a look at Donohue in action in Birmingham, Alabama, where he told local business leaders about the many worries that CEOs all across the country have, like how much health care is going to cost and what the climate bill will require from them.

Unusually for the leader of a lobbying group, Donohue went on to boast that the Chamber’s revenues for the year would be $200-$250 million.

“Why is that? Because people need somewhere to go to get help. They need somewhere to go where we can bring everybody together and express our views to the Congress and to the regulatory agencies and to the president and to countries around the world and to the press and to the courts!”

Donohue’s pitch evidently worked. From where I was standing in the banquet hall that day, the checkbooks and fountain pens seemed to be emerging from jacket-lining pockets almost of their own volition. “What we always said was the Chamber does best when there’s a Democrat in the White House, because you want businesses to be scared,” a former Chamber lobbyist said. “There’s no better time to raise money than when businesses are scared.”

Hmm. That’s interesting, and sure puts the Chamber’s complaints about its recent defeats in a different context.

The Monthly story also does a good job explaining how the Chamber orchestrates grassroots and media campaigns around the country, even using local political operatives to set up front groups, keeping its member companies out of the spotlight. This is interesting, and important, stuff:

In other words, a large part of what the Chamber sells is political cover. For multibillion-dollar insurers, drug makers, and medical device manufacturers who are too smart and image conscious to make public attacks of their own, the Chamber of Commerce is a friend who will do the dirty work. “I want to give them all the deniability they need,” says Donohue. That deniability is evidently worth a lot. According to a January article in the National Journal, six insurers alone—Aetna, Cigna, Humana, Kaiser Foundation Health Plans, UnitedHealth Group, and Wellpoint—pumped up to $20 million into the Chamber last year.

That’s a lot of good context. Too bad Post readers didn’t get some of it, to help them judge just what kind of a season the Chamber is having.

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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.