The Politely Evil Empire

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

"We have hundreds and hundreds of green businesses," says Terri Hiroshima of the ­Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, which has also canceled its national membership. "Even organizations that have nothing to do with green often use a green lens."

The Chamber has spent hundreds of millions of dollars buying a government-is-the-Antichrist Congress.

But if confirmation of global warming was a triumph for free enterprise, it wasn't exactly the kind the U.S. Chamber wanted.

The national group receives big money from the coal, oil, and chemical industries. So it once again sacrificed its smaller members.

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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Through lobbying and public statements, the Chamber implied that global warming was a lie peddled by the eco-effete. It fought the EPA's right to regulate carbon-dioxide emissions, and vandalized Washington's every attempt to tame the Earth's heating.

"No organization in this country has done more to undermine such legislation," the New York Times editorialized.

The Chamber also did its best to keep Congress ignorant. In 2010, for example, more than 90 percent of the candidates it backed were climate-change deniers.

Unfortunately, the organization began to believe its own news releases. That's when William Kovacs, the Chamber's senior vice president for environment, technology, and regulatory affairs, completely jumped the shark.

In 2009, he asked the EPA to hold a grand public hearing, which would place the science of climate change on trial. There would be witnesses and a judge. Kovacs called it "the Scopes monkey trial of the 21st Century," likening it to the famous 1925 hearing in which fundamentalist Christians tried to debunk the theory of evolution.

Scientifically speaking, it was like the American Medical Association wondering out loud whether leeches should be used to treat cancer. Kovacs' buffoonery backfired.

Apple dumped its membership. Nike left the Chamber board. Even old-line energy companies such as Exelon, PNM, and Pacific Gas & Electric chose to bail, as did local chambers as far away as Homer, Alaska.

"Extreme rhetoric and obstructionist tactics seem to increasingly mark the Chamber's public stance on this issue," Pacific CEO Peter Darbee wrote to the Chamber. "These reflect neither the true range of views among members nor, in many cases, an honest view of the economic and environmental realities at hand."

The U.S. Chamber found itself in a familiar place: While such gibberish raised hosannas in D.C., it was more commonly regarded as "talking like a moron" in the rest of the country.

Yet the Chamber has nonetheless built an anti-science faction in Congress capable of stalling any change. Laugh as people might, the Big Gorilla still owns the best fortifications money can buy.

"They're basically one of the most effective anti-climate organizations in the world," says the Aspen Skiing Company's Schendler.

His firm operates one of the largest ski resorts in America, employing 3,400 people. Global warming is its greatest threat. "We're not going to be able to fix climate until we get money out of politics," Schendler says. "And the U.S. Chamber is that problem writ large."

IX. You didn't actually believe what we were saying, did you?

Last year, the Chamber's bulwark began to erode. It neglected to factor in the one unavoidable downside of extremism: In the end, the crazy train always leaves the rails.

Since the turn of the century, the Chamber has spent hundreds of millions of dollars buying a government-is-the-Antichrist Congress. It hasn't seemed to notice that its candidates have gone from centrist businessmen to bomb throwers of uncertain mental hygiene.

The centrists of the past understood that all of that small-government bluster was merely theater for red-meat voters. They never really wanted to burn down Washington. After all, the Chamber's benefactors — and the Republican Party's — get too much welfare, too many special laws, too many exemptions, and too many sweetheart deals to upend the golden trough.

But the Chamber's new breed of Tea Party candidates appears unable to grasp such nuances. They're more interested in busting out the water cannons. And they've forgotten to stay bought.

The Tea Partiers have repeatedly threatened to shut down the government. They've refused to take up immigration reform, preventing Big Ag, Silicon Valley, and the restaurant industry from getting their mitts on cheap labor. And they've attacked the Chamber's most loyal footmen, like John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, for their insufficient vigor in setting Washington aflame.

Donohue's frustration is clear. After a recent breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor, a reporter asked him about Ted Cruz, noting that businesspeople might prefer that the Texas senator sit down and shut up. "That might be one thing we could work on," Donohue responded.

These days, the Chamber looks like an organization with buyer's remorse. In the 2012 election, it spent tens of millions tarring Democrats, only to find its message too archaic for modern sensibilities. Most of those Democrats were re-elected.

It spent millions more electing jihadists like Cruz, people who don't seem to care how many fights they pick — or how often they lose — as long as their heroics are nationally televised.

All of these train wrecks have led the Chamber to undergo a reluctant self-examination.

"The Tea Party has become so radical and so polarizing that the Chamber doesn't want to be seen looking like that," the AFL-CIO's Silvers says.

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