Inside the Chamber

Under Thomas Donohue, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has become a probusiness powerhouse. Not everyone is celebrating.

From his office on the fourth floor of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce building in Washington, D.C., Thomas Donohue commands a grand view of Lafayette Park, abloom with flowers, and, beyond that, glimmering in the sun, the White House. On his desk, Donohue keeps a blunt reminder of what it takes to maintain such a view:
a small plaque that says “Show Me the Money.”

Having spent nearly a decade at the helm of the organization, Donohue has emerged as an undisputed master of both raising and spending money. His fund-raising prowess has remade remade the Chamber into the richest, most powerful, and arguably most successful business lobby in the United States. As the Chamber’s coffers have swelled, so too has its agenda, which now includes everything from scaling back Sarbanes-Oxley to battling the Securities and Exchange Commission to promoting U.S. business in China, assessing the state of the country’s public-education system, and waging legal battles in state and federal courts.

Donohue loves a good fight, and his fans applaud his ability to rally the troops for a huge range of causes. His critics, some of whom are very much probusiness themselves, contend that both his agenda and his methods are ill-advised, allegations that he shrugs off as an inevitable byproduct of intense advocacy.

No one can dispute his impact on the Chamber. Since he became president and chief executive officer in 1997, he has tripled its operating budget to a projected $151 million in 2006, boosted the number of full-time lobbyists from 2 to 18, and transformed the organization into a bully pulpit from which he has redefined the business of lobbying for business.

Until a few years ago, the Chamber was a meek participant in the rough-and-tumble game of politics. Most companies relied on their trade associations to protect their interests discreetly; those groups worked mainly behind the scenes with small budgets and narrow agendas. Donohue’s big money has bought a bullhorn for the Chamber, and it is speaking out on a broad array of issues, many of them highly controversial, including immigration, trade policy, health care, homeland security, foreign investment, and Social Security. Despite the lobbying scandals that brought down House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and bought a nearly six-year jail sentence for lobbyist Jack Abramoff, Donohue says the Chamber has no plans to rein in its spending. “Everything we do is within the law,” he says.

Indeed, the law seems to hold a special fascination for Donohue. The Chamber is unique among associations in that it has its own in-house law firm. Three full-time lawyers and one part-timer staff the firm, which last year was involved in 85 cases as plaintiff or friend of the court. The Chamber says 43 of those cases were decided in its favor. The Chamber also has filed amicus briefs in cases pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. “Tom loves litigation,” says Robin Conrad, senior vice president of the National Chamber Litigation Center. “We live in a litigious society, and he believes in fighting fire with fire.”

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