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Why Are Companies Fleeing The Chamber Of Commerce?

In recent months, we've seen a host of companies protest the Chamber of Commerce's stance on global warming by either speaking out or resigning: Apple, Nike, GE, Johnson & Johnson, three electric utilities... The Chamber, in turn, has pointed out that the vast majority of its three million members haven't defected. Fair enough, but that raises a question: How did the Chamber's climate policy get decided in the first place? Was it a transparent, open process, and Apple and Nike are just sore losers? Nope. As Mother Jones's Josh Harkinson today today, the Chamber appears to have hashed out its climate stance behind closed doors:

Several Chamber members representing USCAP [a pro-cap-and-trade group] recently met with president Tom Donohue to request that he alter the group's climate stance, according to the spokesman. "They were totally rebuffed," he says. Donohue "said that they should continue the dialogue, but offered no methods or avenues for changing the Chamber's position."

In an interview with Greenwire published yesterday, Nike backed other board members who say they never voted to approve the Chamber's climate policies. "We just weren't clear in how decisions on climate and energy were being made," said Brad Figel, Nike's director of government relations. "They're not being made at the board-of-director level, because we're a member of the board of directors. We were not consulted. We're convinced that's not really where the action on climate change is being made."

Now, Harkinson ventures a couple guesses as to why the Chamber settled, in secret, on a position that a) involves crudely trashing the science behind climate change and b) opposing any form of greenhouse-gas regulation that has a realistic shot of passing Congress. Theories include Chamber President Thomas Donohue's seat on the board of Union Pacific railroad (which earns a lot of money from hauling coal) or the fact that 49 of the 118 companies on the Chamber's board represent oil, gas, chemical, utility, or transportation companies—precisely those that would be discomfited most by cap-and-trade.

But I think there's a more historical way to understand the Chamber's stance. Flash back to the 1994 health care debate, when, under Richard Lesher, the Chamber originally supported Bill Clinton's reform plan, since many of its members were getting squeezed by rising health care costs. As John Judis reported back in 1995, Republicans grew apoplectic, savaging the Chamber and urging its members to resign and join more partisan groups like the National Federation of Independent Businesses, instead. Eventually, the Chamber swung around and opposed Clinton's health care plan, but, by that time, it had lost about one-fifth of its membership and its place as the nation's foremost business-lobbying group.

As a result, in 1997, Tom Donohue replaced Lesher as the Chamber's CEO. The profiles written about Donohue at the time characterized him as a hard-charging former trucking lobbyist who wanted to revive the Chamber's prestige by waging an all-out war against trial lawyers, labor unions, and environmental regulations. The days of studious bipartisanship were over. "This stuff [EPA head] Carol Browner is trying to do is just insane, and [AFL-CIO President John] Sweeney, someone's got to hit him in the mouth," he roared in his first interview with The New York Times. Whereas Lesher had never felt comfortable in the rough-and-tumble world of lobbying, Donohue quickly beefed up his K Street operation, hiring, among others, Bill Kovacs, the Chamber's in-house climate skeptic.

During the years when Republicans ran Washington, Donohue's hard-line strategy helped the Chamber flourish. The revitalized organization pushed the GOP (and the Bush administration) to dismantle regulations and dole out corporate handouts in exchange for staunch political support, and no one had any reason to complain. But times have changed. Democrats are in charge and pushing action on global warming. Many companies have zero reason to block those efforts. For Nike and Apple, opposition is bad for their image. And, as I detailed in a recent magazine piece, a lot of electric utilities want to play a constructive role in climate legislation so they can shape it according their interests, rather than endlessly obstruct and get screwed. Better to be at the table than on the menu, etc.

In the meantime, Republicans are staggering around in the political wilderness and can't credibly arm-twist companies to back their party line, as they did in 1994 on health care. (Interestingly, the GOP's chief enforcer back then was none other than John Boehner, who informed Leshher behind closed doors that his role was to oppose anything Clinton did.) In many ways, the Chamber may be clinging to a mindset that's looking increasingly outmoded in the current political climate.