Dissension in the Corporate Ranks

October 2nd, 2009 by Phil Mattera

donohueBusiness lobbyists may be gloating over the divisions in the Democratic Party on healthcare reform, but they are facing a serious schism of their own.

In recent weeks several large corporations have quit their membership in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce because of the giant trade association’s intransigent opposition to the climate legislation now being considered by Congress. The defectors include utilities Pacific Gas & Electric, PNM Resources and Exelon, while shoe giant Nike took a more limited step by resigning its seat on the Chamber’s board.

The resignations represent the most significant internal turmoil in the Chamber since the early 1990s, when the organization outraged some of its members and all of the Republican Party leadership by showing support for portions of the Clinton Administration’s economic policies and healthcare reform proposal. “The Chamber has lost its way,” Rep. John Boehner told Business Week. “It sold out its principles for 30 pieces of silver from Bill Clinton.”

While the Chamber remained appropriately reactionary on most issues, the controversy brought about a shakeup within the organization and probably contributed to the decision of its president Richard Lesher to step down in 1997. The person chosen to succeed him was Thomas J. Donohue Jr., a hardliner described as “militant” and a “junkyard dog.” Among other things, Donohue had, in his role as head of the American Trucking Association, tried to get Congress to ban the use of corporate campaign pressure tactics by unions.

No one could accuse Donohue (photo) of straying from business laissez-faire ideology. As the Wall Street Journal pointed out in 2001, he was also quite willing to use the clout of the Chamber to advance the narrow interests of individual large corporations. Donohue dramatically expanded the organization’s membership and thus its budget, allowing the Chamber to spend unprecedented sums on lobbying.

But now it seems that Donohue and the Chamber have been a bit too orthodox. More and more large corporations are accepting that global warming has to be addressed and that the Waxman-Markey bill passed by the House and the companion legislation now before the Senate would not have the disastrous consequences for business that the Chamber has predicted.

The Chamber, however, increasingly seems to be captive to the coal industry, its railroad partners and other corporate fossil-fuel dead-enders. Environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council are accusing Donohue of having a personal conflict of interest because of his long tenure as an outside director of one of those railroads, Union Pacific.

While the actual resignations from the Chamber are few so far, the number will probably rise. Other members such as General Electric are making it clear the Chamber does not speak for them on climate issues and are facing mounting pressure to make a complete break.

It is refreshing to see dissension in the corporate ranks on the climate debate. If we can continue to drive a wedge between business pragmatists and Neanderthals on this and other issues, we may see some real progress in the federal legislative arena.

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