The Politely Evil Empire

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

"The reaction was horrible," she says.

During the last elections, some 40 local chambers were forced to publicly distance themselves from the national group.

After the ad launched, Comstock would arrive at work each day to find her phone ringing off the hook. Shaheen, a Democrat, held wide support among businesspeople. Comstock's members mistakenly believed the Manchester Chamber was behind the attack.

"People were appalled," she says. "I was losing members. I was under more and more pressure to distance myself from this ad campaign. So many members were calling to ask if their portion of their dues were going to support the national [Chamber]."

Aspen businesssman Auden Schendler pushed his city's chamber to leave the national group.
Hal Williams
Aspen businesssman Auden Schendler pushed his city's chamber to leave the national group.
U.S. Chamber CEO Tom Donohue believes in small government, except when it comes to corporate welfare.
U.S. Department of Defense photo
U.S. Chamber CEO Tom Donohue believes in small government, except when it comes to corporate welfare.

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Comstock called Washington headquarters, asking that disclaimers be placed on the ads to absolve the locals of culpability. No one called back. Comstock promptly dumped her national membership.

These days, the relationship between Manchester and Washington is still toxic. "If an operative from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce comes to one of our events, I can't even sit with them, because our members would be suspicious," Comstock says. "So I don't associate with them in any way at all."

The problem, it seems, is the boys back in D.C. still believe that businesspeople only come in a 1950s cartoon model: middle-aged conservative men with pattern baldness who storm against welfare queens and Socialists. But these days, business owners are just as likely to be yoga studio owners, software titans, or chefs with a string of locavore bistros.

Pasadena's Little explains the diversity: "We have members who are sending rovers to Mars, and we have the guy who works on my car."

These modern members are anything but a one-note chorus. "We have 550 companies, and they probably have 550 perspectives on any given thing," adds Largo's Morrissette.

It's a diversity that's made the national Chamber's golden-parachute platform increasingly untenable. After all, when Big Oil gets welfare or Big Pharma gets special ­protection, the little guy gets stuck with the tab.

"I think the fundamental problem with the Chamber is that they purport to speak for the economy as a whole," says Public Citizen's Parent. "But in reality, they speak for only a very small portion of very large U.S. corporations, often to the detriment of small business."

Nowhere is this more evident than in the U.S. Chamber's secretive lobbying campaigns, where huge piles of cash turn free markets into farce.

VII. Frontman for hire. Complete anonymity, no questions asked.

And here's the beauty of it: Because the U.S. Chamber is technically nonprofit and nonpartisan, it can take a drug cartel's approach to finance, raising limitless millions without ever saying where the money comes from.

In reality, the Chamber is as nonpartisan as Fox News. More than 90 percent of its money goes to Republicans. Donohue, meanwhile, makes nearly $5 million a year while being squired around the country via private jet. For him, at least, the Chamber is plenty profitable.

But under federal law, just pretending to play it straight is good enough.

"They have unlimited resources," the Brown campaign's Barasky says. "There's no rule about how much money they can raise. You don't have to sign your name when you write them a check, so it's very easy to put out false ads all over the country."

This has led to a lucrative side business: the Chamber as frontman for hire. Companies kick money under the table, and the Chamber assumes the role of their public attack dog.

The true extent of the operation is ­unknown. But Prudential, Dow Chemical, Goldman Sachs, and Chevron have all been outed for signing up for the service. Their money goes to things such as weakening Wall Street regulations, fighting security rules for chemical facilities, and generally sabotaging any attempt to rein in the less seemly practices of commerce.

Even when a law is passed, the Chamber's lobbying power can tie it up for years, watering it down before it takes effect.

The most bungling campaign came during debates over the Affordable Care Act. Since the 1990s, health-care premiums have averaged double-digit hikes every year, creating a diamond mine for insurers. But Obamacare requires insurers to spend at least 80 percent of those premiums on actual care — about 10 percent more than they were spending before. Anything less, and their customers get a refund.

This didn't please the insurance industry. While publicly feigning support for the Affordable Care Act, companies such as Aetna, Cigna, UnitedHealth, and WellPoint secretly funneled $86 million to the U.S. Chamber, which launched a fusillade of attack ads claiming Obamacare would give you everything but leprosy.

Even the CEO of General Electric called the Chamber's position "lunacy." Virtually the entire business world wanted something done about soaring health costs. The point wasn't whether one favored Obamacare or not. It was that the Chamber offered no meaningful alternative. It simply chose to sacrifice its members so that insurers could continue to gouge them.

But it would take even greater weirdness to drive the big boys away.

VIII. Science is a liberal plot. No, really.

Give American business credit. When global warming was finally recognized as a reality, entrepreneurs jumped in feet first, building whole new industries devoted to pure innovation, be it turning cooking grease into auto fuel or recycled plastic into synthetic wood.

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