I don't understand why everyone is so surprised to find out that large corporations are funneling massive amounts of money to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Last week's NYT report has been making the Internet rounds, and while I appreciate the point that the Chamber is much more partisan than its non-profit status would suggest—70 of the Chamber's 93 midterm campaign ads either support Republican candidates or attack their opponents, despite the Chamber's promise to the Federal Election Commission that it only talks about issues—there's also a curious amount of wonderment at big-company donations. Yes, Wall Street firms sent millions of dollars to the Chamber when financial re-regulation was on the table, and the insurance industry got out its checkbook when it was time to talk healthcare reform. Why would anyone be surprised?
The more counterintuitive and telling story, which the Times only flicks at, is how unsatisfied certain businesspeople are growing with the U.S. Chamber. A couple of weeks ago, New Hampshire's Greater Hudson Chamber of Commerce decided to break ties with the national organization, because, in the words of the Nashua Telegraph:
[I]t felt recent political advertisements by the national chamber in support of specific parties and candidates were in “direct conflict” with the foundation of the Hudson chamber. Jerry Mayotte, executive vice president of the Greater Hudson Chamber of Commerce, said the Hudson group is a nonpartisan organization. He said he can’t remember the last time they chose not to renew their membership.
Last year, the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut did the same thing. Tony Sheridan, the group's president and CEO recently explained why:
"My issue with the national chamber is their willingness to take a very narrow slice of a piece of complicated legislation - and it's generally the most negative spin they're taking, like health care, when we all know that the health-care system is broken - and claim that the sky is falling, instead of using the money to educate people," Sheridan said.
During financial re-reform, a number of local and regional chambers, including the South Carolina Small Business Chamber of Commerce and the U.S. Women's Chamber of Commerce, tried to get out a similar message when it came to the proposed Consumer Finance Protection Agency. In one op-ed, the CEO of the U.S. Women's Chamber wrote:
The U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce disagrees with the U.S. Chamber’s big business scare tactics regarding the benefits of a strong, independent Consumer Federal Protection Agency. The U.S. Chamber would have small businesses believe that protecting the rights of bank and non-bank lenders to deceive, manipulate and bet against small businesses is good for the economy and good for our future – all evidence to the contrary.
The big take-away: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is not the same thing as American business. It's easy for the U.S. Chamber—in fact, it's easy for any well-funded lobbying group—to say that they speak for an entire population. That's probably never going to be true. And in the case of the U.S. Chamber, it seems to be less true with each passing day.