There may have been a day when the heads of big trade associations in Washington resembled statesmen. It ended sometime before 1997, when Tom Donohue took over as president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In the modern era, people with jobs such as Donohue’s are expected to operate as political entrepreneurs — identifying opportunities, squeezing out competitors and relentlessly raising money.
Witness the efforts Donohue’s chamber has been making lately on behalf of American tobacco companies. As Danny Hakim reported Tuesday in the New York Times:
“From Ukraine to Uruguay, Moldova to the Philippines, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its foreign affiliates have become the hammer for the tobacco industry, engaging in a worldwide effort to fight anti-smoking laws of all kinds, according to interviews with government ministers, lobbyists, lawmakers and public health groups in Asia, Europe, Latin America and the United States.”
This revelation won’t go over super well with all of the chamber’s members. Big American companies that aren’t in the tobacco business tend to be hostile toward smoking — not surprisingly, given its cost in medical bills and lost productivity. I would not be shocked if a few prominent corporations leave the organization over this, as several did in 2009 in response to Donohue’s denialist stance on climate change. Do not, however, expect a retreat from the combative, mercenary approach the organization has followed for the past 18 years. This is a business, people, and that approach brings in lots of money.
It didn’t always work this way. The U.S. Chamber, founded in 1912 at the behest of then-President William Howard Taft as a counterpoint to the growing labor movement, was from the beginning a political organization, and usually an ally of the Republican Party. But the chamber also built a reputation over the decades as a part of the centrist establishment. It played a key role in the war effort in the 1940s after some initial reticence, and it embraced such postwar internationalist endeavors as the Marshall Plan and the United Nations. In 1993, when a newly elected Democratic president came into office with reformist plans for education, job creation and health care, the chamber’s leaders were all ears. For a time, they even appeared to be on board with Bill and Hillary Clinton’s proposals for universal health insurance coverage.
That ended badly, of course.
Then, in 1997, Donohue took over. He’d done a stint as the chamber’s head of membership in the late 1970s and early 1980s, before being appointed president of the American Trucking Association, a backwater trade group that he transformed into a combative Washington powerhouse during his 13 years in charge. He came back to the chamber pledging to revitalize an organization that, he said at the time, “has lost some of its starch.”
Donohue predicted that the road to success would be paved with pragmatism. “We are interested in winning,” he said.“And winning requires both sides of the aisle, and we intend to get them.” Donohue did revitalize the chamber, but not by following that approach at all. He has steered the chamber away from bipartisanship, not toward it, and he’s generally been less interested in winning than in fighting.
Its fundraising and spending, on the other hand, have gone swimmingly. It raised $205 million in 2009 and $189 million in 2010, at the height of its battles with President Obama, and it has been the No. 1 lobbying spender in Washington every year since 2001, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Fighting tobacco regulation is clearly at odds with the public interest, both overseas and in the U.S., and not in the interest of any chamber members other than a few tobacco companies. It’s also, well, despicable. Maybe this will be the issue that finally puts a halt to the almost purely mercenary turn the organization has taken under Donohue. But I wouldn’t count on that.