Opinion

KOLB: Second Thoughts, Or A Mea Culpa, At The US Chamber Of Commerce?

Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Charles Kolb Deputy Assistant to George H.W. Bush
Font Size:

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has been running ads almost nonstop opposing the Biden administration’s Build Back Better legislation.

“STOP the reconciliation bill! Say NO to reckless taxes and spending!” the Chamber urges.

Is this the same U.S. Chamber of Commerce that, in 2020, decided to chart a new political direction by making political-action-committee (PAC) contributions to support 23 House Democrats’ reelection campaigns?

At the time, this change in political direction at the behest of the Chamber’s new president, Suzanne Clark, was considered an “unusual move” and a “risky bet” for the usually pro-business organization.

Now, with the 2022 midterms almost a year away, Ms. Clark is changing course by targeting at least five incumbent Democrats previously endorsed by the Chamber.

For years, I’ve been on the record supporting campaign finance reform. Political contributions are a waste of time and money. They constitute, at worst, a political shakedown racket, or, at best, a sorting mechanism for determining who gets limited face time with members of Congress and their staff.

We’re the only developed democracy in the world that allows such a political shakedown racket in order to fund election campaigns (including for many state judges). Perhaps this situation explains why we’ve never embraced universal pre-k in this country: three-year-olds can’t vote.

What is also surprising is the inability of conservatives and liberals to find common ground when it comes to how money enters our political system.

Many conservatives oppose non-competitive rent-seeking in other contexts but somehow fail to acknowledge that campaign-finance shakedowns amount to little more than buying votes to get some goody or avoid an adverse legislative consequence. Liberals decry the undue influence of moneyed “special interests,” but now seem to revel in the gushers of dark money being spent by outside groups purportedly unaffiliated with their campaigns.

And then there are the members of Congress themselves who periodically bemoan a system that requires them to spend significant amounts of their time dialing for dollars. (Ever wonder why the congressional legislative calendar looks the way it does?) They claim to abhor it, but years pass without serious efforts to address the problem. Like tort reform, this issue has become another long-running Washington political kabuki game.

If and when Joe Biden’s Build Back Better legislation becomes law, along with the smaller infrastructure package passed earlier by the Senate, it will be interesting to run the traps on the money that changed hands to influence the details of these massive spending bills.

The nonpartisan group OpenSecrets (on whose board I serve) does a superb job of tracking political contributions. Let’s see who got what and for how much.

One of my political heroines is the late Shirley Chisholm, a New York Democrat who was also the first Black woman elected to Congress. She refused to take campaign contributions and penned a memoir entitled “Unbought and Unbossed.”

I was in her office once when she explained how she decided to vote. She listened to her constituents and to her conscience and then voted based on what she thought was right. She was adamant: if her constituents didn’t like her voting record, they could elect someone else.

Ms. Clark is likely to learn a few hard lessons from losing her “risky bet.” Now, some Republican House members are already signaling that if the GOP regains the House majority next year, the Chamber’s voice won’t be welcome. The Chamber could be frozen out for years to come – hence its frantic messaging today.

Many Chamber members were upset at the 2020 decision to endorse those 23 House Democrats. A plausible case can be made that the Chamber’s 2020 support helped return Nancy Pelosi as House Speaker with her ultra-thin majority.

If the Biden administration’s big government tax-and-spend proposals become law, Ms. Clark’s bet will not only have been risky; it will have been disastrous.

Clark’s immediate predecessor, Tom Donohue, served 22 years as the Chamber’s president and CEO. He repositioned the Chamber and made it an influential Washington voice.

Ms. Clark’s 2020 decision could well have implications for her continued Chamber leadership. She would have been better off to have stayed Donohue’s course. Even better would have been to have opted out of the shakedown system altogether, skipped the rent-seeking, and worked to be heard on the merits.

As a major business organization with some 300,000 members, the Chamber doesn’t have to “pay to play” to wield influence.

Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to reflect that Suzanne Clark was not CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 2020.

Charles Kolb served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 1990-1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House