Today the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is one of the designated enemies of the Obama administration. This is not a complete surprise. The Chamber, organized at the request of President Taft specifically to communicate the positions and interests of the private sector in contrast to those of organized labor (the AFL-CIO’s offices are virtually next door to the Chamber, which itself looks across Lafayette Park onto the White House) always has a better relationship with Republican administrations than Democrat, because of the two parties’ very different philosophies on labor, regulation, free enterprise, taxation, and other epic issues. Other Democratic administrations have managed to respond to the Chamber’s predictable opposition without vilifying it; but not this one. Taking its cue from the White House’s regrettable enemies-list approach, a coalition of extreme progressive-left organizations have launched www.StopTheChamber.com to make the vilification intense, focusing on de-legitimizing the Chamber as a national policy advocate.
Typical of such groups and such efforts (by both the Left and the Right), StoptheChamber’s screed begins with the assumption that its position is the only defensible one, that they have all the answers, that they are good, and therefore the opposition is evil. The Chamber, in this formula, is not trying to avoid untenable deficits and large tax increases, as it claims, but rather working to deny health care for all. It is not questioning the wisdom of spending billions of dollars and handicapping U.S. industry with scientifically dubious solutions to climate change, but rather trying to poison the environment for profit. It is not lobbying, but “buying Congress.” [Clarification: I agree that a lot of lobbying, including that of the Chamber and its members, does amount to “buying Congress,” or trying to. Lobbying, as it is currently practiced in America, too often promotes corruption. It is disingenuous, however, to take the position that one side’s lobbying is corrupt while the other side’s identical activities are virtuous.]
The group’s remedy for the inconvenience of the Chamber’s opposition is typically undemocratic: shut it down with investigations and government harassment. Alleging “criminal activity and fraud” (and, amusingly, quoting disgraced felon Eliott Spitzer, the deposed Governor of New York, to bolster its claims), the group wants to stop the Chamber from lobbying and expressing contrary opinions…essentially because it is a formidable adversary.
OK. The group’s rhetoric (the coalition is called “the Velvet Revolution,” and finding the actual groups it includes is extremely time-consuming—at least the Chamber’s members don’t hide behind their umbrella) is undemocratic, uncivil, hyperbolic, and juvenile, but typical (sadly) of a lot of over-heated ranting on the Right and the Left, and individually harmless. (The cumulative effect of this sort of political offal-throwing on all sides is disastrous to our government, but that is a larger topic for another post.) It announces itself for what it is, an unapologetic, extreme, progressive, take-no-prisoners organization advocating revolutionary change in America. if you didn’t already agree with their assertions, you will not find them especially persuasive. When the group dashed far past the ethical line was when it held a fake press conference under the Chamber’s banner, and supported it with the fake website, http://www.chamber-of-commerce.us The address is misleading, and the site itself is more so. Using graphics indistinguishable from the actual Chamber homepage, the site makes a serious effort to deceive any reader into believing he or she has reached the US Chamber website, and that the Chamber, through a statement by its President, Tom Donohue, is reversing course and embracing climate change legislation.
A hoax, a joke, a parody—this is what the Velvet Revolution is calling the site, which is now, appropriately, the object of legal action by the Chamber. The Chamber has a right to express views contrary to climate change advocates, just as the Velvet Revolution has a right to make its opinions known; the press conference and the website interfere with the Chamber’s message. These cyber stunts may be legal (though I doubt it), but they are not in any sense fair or ethical. They are not designed to educate or inform, or even debate. Their purpose is to confuse, deceive, and annoy, while achieving media publicity as a bonus.
Of course, the Chamber’s choice was to protect itself from misrepresentation and help unsuspecting members of the public from landing on the wrong website, looking like bullies in the process, or to ignore the deception and allow it to continue. It is in a no-win situation, which is exactly as the Velvet Revolution intended. In other words, their tactic was an unqualified success.
That does not make it right.
[Full disclosure: I used to work for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. I was hired to run the Chamber’s policy issue research foundation, which had the assignment of performing open-ended, independent research on issues of concern to the nation and the business community. I was permitted to choose the topics of the research, to choose the researchers, and to pick each project’s advisory committees, which always included representatives from academia, labor, government and other points of view as well as private sector experts. Sometimes the results of our studies supported the Chamber’s position, and sometimes they did not. But I was never pressured to slant the findings; indeed, my boss at the Chamber, an Executive Vice-President, insisted that it was critical not to bias the studies in any way. He insisted on honesty, integrity, and letting the facts show the way, even when others in the Chamber leadership strongly objected.
That boss was Thomas J. Donohue, today the Chamber’s President. He was the most impressive of many impressive and able people I met in the seven years I worked for the Chamber, which was and is far less monolithic in its ideological views than its image suggests. Tom is smart, open-minded, a deft politician and a talented leader. He has a sense of humor. Most of all, I found him to be someone you can trust. He may defeat you, he may outmaneuver you, but he does not cheat, and I never knew him to lie. He has a constituency as president of a business organization, and he will fight for their interests, but not in an unfair way.
I left the Chamber shortly after Tom Donohue did (he became the head of the American Trucking Association), because he was no longer there to make sure my research efforts would have integrity and free reign. Still, I respected the organization, its expertise, breadth and professionalism. Many of its positions were not my positions, and are not today, but the Chamber does its job, agree with it or not, professionally and well.]