The Politely Evil Empire

How the U.S. Chamber of Commerce became the greatest (bumbling) enemy of America.

Soon the U.S. Chamber began sounding less like the apostle of free markets and more like the official welfare agency of the golden-parachute set. Donohue called for drastic cuts to social programs. But he also wanted taxpayers to bail out BP after its Gulf spill, defended the oil industry's $12 billion annual welfare package, and was outworked by no one in protecting Wall Street banks from too-big-to-fail laws.

Think of the U.S. Chamber as your crazy Uncle Ed.

"The Chamber isn't really anti-government," says Damon Silvers, policy director of the AFL-CIO, a federation of some of the nation's largest unions. "They just want the government to be subordinate to big business."

(The group isn't keen on discussing such contradictions. Spokeswoman Blair Latoff Holmes asked that questions be submitted in writing but then never responded.)

When the U.S. Chamber attacked Jeanne Shaheen, its local members revolted.
Official Photo
When the U.S. Chamber attacked Jeanne Shaheen, its local members revolted.
The Chamber spent millions electing bomb-throwers like Ted Cruz, only to see their plan backfire.
Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons
The Chamber spent millions electing bomb-throwers like Ted Cruz, only to see their plan backfire.

Even Chamber members understand that small merchants have been sidelined. "We try to help small businesses grow, and the U.S. Chamber is more big business," says Mark Jaffe, president of the Greater New York chapter.

This wouldn't be a problem if Donohue and company would stay in Washington. The trouble usually begins when they take their show on the road. After all, if you're fighting against things like equal pay for women or rules on dumping hazardous waste, you need a sugary helping of deceit to make it edible in the heartland.

And that's when local chambers rebel.

IV. Honesty may be the best policy, but what does that have to do with politics?

Only in the past decade or so has the chamber begun getting aggressively involved in campaigns for select candidates. During the last elections, some 40 local chambers were forced to distance themselves publicly from the national group. That's because the U.S. Chamber prefers to speak by attack ad when it arrives in the hinterlands.

Stylistically, the TV ads are the same ham-fisted productions found in most campaigns. Ominous music. Voiceovers predicting doom. A simpleton's message impugning character: Sen. Bill Swen­son — he's impolite to his mother.

What sets the U.S. Chamber apart is its consistent — even comical — level of deceit.

Go ahead — run a search for "U.S. Chamber" at FactCheck.org, a nonpartisan group that researches political ads for their veracity. The group has written about so many Chamber ads deemed false or misleading that it could sue for carpal tunnel damage.

In Florida, the U.S. Chamber ran one TV ad claiming that Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson voted to cut $500 billion from Medicare to fund Obamacare. The assertion was widely debunked, but that didn't stop the Chamber from running the ad 2,599 times to terrify the state's elderly.

In Ohio, it ran another attack ad 5,515 times, this time claiming that U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown voted to raise energy taxes. Brown actually voted to phase out a $12 billion annual welfare package to the hyper-profitable oil industry, something that even conservative Ohioans would probably applaud.

"They're certainly one of the worst," says Justin Barasky, communications director for the Brown campaign. "You can usually bet good money that they're misleading at best, ridiculously false at worst, and often offensive."

The Chamber created its biggest fury in Montana, a small-population state where politics operate on a first-name basis. The locals mutinied.

V. The Big Gorilla rides into town — and gets its ass kicked.

It's been more than a year since the U.S. Chamber's assault on Sen. Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat. He's still seething.

"They just come in and try to distort, distort, distort," Tester says. "When you're being outspent significantly, it's tough to fight back."

In Montana, the Chamber threw the same awkward roundhouses it did at Nelson and Brown, adding claims that Tester had raised taxes, killed jobs, and almost single-handedly increased unemployment. If you took those claims as truth, you'd assume Tester also spent his days punching Girl Scouts.

But they weren't true. And the local chambers knew it.

The Great Falls Chamber labeled the assault "hit ads" and "half-truths." The director of the Butte Chamber called the spots "a real waste of money," adding, "I don't think that's where chamber memberships and dues should be going." Other Montana chambers sought cover, announcing they played no role in the smear.

"The whole goal was to make me into something I wasn't," says Tester. "They weren't particularly well done. They misspelled my name, for example. One of the issues I got marked down on was equal pay for women. The U.S. Chamber doesn't think women should get equal pay for equal work."

The campaign backfired. ­Tester was re-elected.

What the Big Gorilla couldn't seem to grasp is that what makes an entity mighty in Washington tends to make it repellent everywhere else. Depending upon who's doing the counting, this has caused somewhere between 40 and 60 local chambers to leave the national group.

Robin Comstock will tell you why.

VI. A rebellion roils New Hampshire.

In 2008, the U.S. Chamber aimed its guns at Jeanne Shaheen, a popular former governor running for the U.S. Senate in New Hampshire. One ad parodied silent movies, showing a caricature of Shaheen being tied to railroad tracks and run over by a train, says Comstock, president of the Greater Manchester Chamber.

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