Show Him the Money

Tom Donohue scares millions of dollars out of corporations and Republicans. But is his U.S. Chamber of Commerce good for business?

By James Verini

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Give me a million dollars, please: Thomas Donohue, CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is a master of “the ask.”
Photo: Bloomberg via Getty Images

homas J. Donohue, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, has a well-developed talent for self-promotion. He makes a point of being the last person on any stage, and he leaves no detail to chance. The Chamber’s event staff is famously fastidious: one of Donohue’s parties involved corralling a Clydesdale horse into the Chamber’s lobby. Such grandiosity is of a piece with how Donohue treats his station. He travels in a chauffeured Lincoln and a leased jet, and his salary, $3.7 million last year, makes him the sixth highest paid lobbyist in the country.

This requires funding, which Donohue secures with exceptional skill. Among his office decorations is a desk plaque that reads, “SHOW ME THE MONEY.” “He used to pound his fist on the desk and say, ‘Show me the money!’” a former Chamber lobbyist recalls. “He got his rocks off on it.”

He leads fund-raising seminars. The same lobbyist recounted what he learned. “Donohue said, first, you walk into the room with the CEO and you hit the key issues,” said the lobbyist. “Then you sit in closer to them. And you make ‘the ask.’ You look right into their eyes and say, ‘As a result of what the Chamber is doing for your industry, I need a hundred thousand dollars.’ Or, ‘I need a million dollars.’ And then you smile and you shut your mouth. Your instinct is to start talking because you’re nervous. Don’t. Just smile and stare. And wait.” The lobbyist, who’d been trained well by Donohue, leaned forward and stared at me as I sat listening. I became nervous. I shifted in my chair. I started laughing, then stopped. He just stared. After a long pause he leaned back and said, “I tell you, there were people in that room who pissed in their pants.”

The ask works. In 2009 the Chamber doled out somewhere in the area of $120 million on lobbying alone, five times what its nearest cohort, Exxon Mobil, spent. Much of that money went to an advertising and grassroots blitz attacking the congressional health care legislation, making the Chamber very likely the biggest spender in the debate. In the weeks leading up to health care’s passage in March, it was spending $800,000 a day trying to defeat the Democratic legislation. Livid that the law went through, the Chamber has now pledged to funnel $50 million—more than twice as much as the entire cash holdings of the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee put together (as of late May)—into an estimated forty House races and ten Senate races this fall. About eight of every ten dollars of Chamber political donations go to Republicans.

With such torrents of Chamber money raining down on the political process, it’s rather ironic that many Americans believe the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to be part of the government. But, in a way, it’s also fitting. With its legions of lobbyists, policy analysts, economists, and attorneys, its own rapid-response media center and law firm, its hundreds of international chapters and steady stream of officials, legislators, and foreign potentates flowing through its immense bronze-relief doors on H Street, the Chamber does act like a federal agency—or like a third political party on permanent campaign. “The Chamber views itself as a shadow-government policymaking body,” a former Chamber economist, Lawrence Hunter, said.

Such policy, of late, has consisted of mounting major battles against regulatory initiatives emanating from the Obama White House. In addition to doing its best to block health care legislation, the Chamber also tried desperately to fend off the financial reform bill passed by the Senate on May 21. Meanwhile, its campaign to influence environmental legislation has relied in part on casting doubt on the exigency, even the existence, of climate change.

The Chamber has lost major policy battles during the Obama presidency, and its resistance to reform has also been costly. When, last fall, the Chamber made news with what was effectively a rejection of climate science, several major companies, including Apple Inc., dropped their membership in the organization—an exodus that provided a welcome public relations boost for the White House. But under the curious rules of Washington lobbying, losses can be as good as wins. “The worst thing to happen to Tom is to have an issue resolved, even to his own favor, because then he can’t raise any more funds on it,” says John Schulz, a former editor at the trade journal Traffic World, who’s covered Donohue for twenty-five years. “There’s nothing he can’t make a dollar on.”

Many of the Chamber’s efforts are undoubtedly good for certain businesses. Wall Street would prefer to avoid further financial regulation. Oil companies would prefer to avoid further environmental regulation. Whether the Chamber—which counts as members everyone from Goldman Sachs to British Petroleum, Microsoft to Wal-Mart, PepsiCo to General Motors, and hundreds of thousands of more obscure businesses in between—is good for business as a whole is another matter. With unemployment, statistical and personal, on the mind of every officeholder up for reelection this year, Republicans and Democrats claim to agree on one thing: small business will be the engine of job growth after the Great Recession. But while the Chamber has as legitimate a claim to representing this sector as any organization around—96 percent of its members have fewer than 100 employees—it is also beholden to a cadre of multinationals whose interests are often inimical to those of small business. In 2008, a third of its revenues came from just nineteen companies.

This sort of conflict doesn’t appear to bother Donohue. One lobbyist at a trade association that shares many members with the Chamber describes Donohue’s tack as “imperial.” “If you don’t like it, you can leave. That’s their approach to members,” he says. Not all members, though. If there’s a consistent pattern to how the Chamber operates, it’s that it follows the money.

 first met Donohue on an early December afternoon in Birmingham, Alabama, where he had flown in to make a speech to local business leaders and officials at a convention center. Donohue, who is seventy-one, has a Kennedyesque chin and a slab of chalk-white hair that jabs forward when he talks. His accent has the vestiges of an Irish Brooklyn drawl. “Yesterday there was a job summit,” Donohue said from the podium, referring to a White House gathering put on by the Obama administration. “Of course, a lot of the people they invited to the summit haven’t got any idea how to create jobs, but that was another story!” The crowd laughed appreciatively.

“But I want to tell you that every CEO I know is walking on pins and needles because there are four or five questions he doesn’t have the answer to,” Donohue continued, turning grave. “Tell me, what’s the health care cost going to be? What is this bill going to look like, what is it going to end up like, and what is it going to cost me? Tell me what a climate bill will look like, what is it going to require, what is it going to cost?
“Remember Jimmy Carter? He was a nice man, but we had—what—twenty percent interest rates and eighteen percent inflation, or vice versa, depending on which week it was. And we can’t go back there.” Then, as a preamble to decrying unions, trial lawyers (“Those are the people that suck the vitality out of companies and stick it in their pockets!”), and “radical environmentalists,” Donohue pointed out what a good year it had been for the Chamber. “Our revenues this year will be between $200 million and a quarter billion dollars,” he boasted. “Why is that? Because people need somewhere to go to get help. They need somewhere to go where we can bring everybody together and express our views to the Congress and to the regulatory agencies and to the president and to countries around the world and to the press and to the courts!”

Donohue’s pitch evidently worked. From where I was standing in the banquet hall that day, the checkbooks and fountain pens seemed to be emerging from jacket-lining pockets almost of their own volition. “What we always said was the Chamber does best when there’s a Democrat in the White House, because you want businesses to be scared,” a former Chamber lobbyist said. “There’s no better time to raise money than when businesses are scared.”

For all the bluster onstage, though, in person Donohue comes across as warm rather than scary. Like many powerful men, he likes to disarm his interlocutors with unexpected bursts of candor. “I’m not much of a Birmingham fan,” he told me after the speech. He’d taken off his jacket and was slumped back in a leather chair in a conference room off the banquet hall, on the other end of a large table from a pile of palettes of crackers, Old Spice deodorant, and gym socks, part of the local Rotary’s Christmas gift drive. Soon he’d be back in the air on a leased jet with his personal assistant (a former marine), his media consigliere (a former Philip Morris tobacco lobbyist), and his wife, Liz. On the agenda was another fund-raiser in Florida. “You can never have enough money,” he told me, with a conspiratorial smirk, which is his smile.

 While Donohue’s travels reflect an avid quest for funds, they also reflect a political process that has grown in complexity. “When I first went to Washington, there were only twelve people you had to give a shit about in Congress,” he said. “Now all the people in Congress, they come in and want to have their say right away. It’s a much different culture.”

I asked Donohue what, exactly, the Chamber does. “Two fundamental things,” he replied. “We’re advocates. Sure we do studies, sure we do events, sure we do meetings, sure we have all kinds of stuff, but we’re advocates.” And then he surprised me again with his candor. “The second thing we do is really more interesting,” he said. “We’re the reinsurance industry for individual industry associations and state chambers of commerce and people of that nature.” An example, said Donohue, was when Wall Street found itself on the defensive in opposing new banking regulations. “They can’t move forward, they can’t move back, or maybe they’re being overrun, and they’ll come to us and say, ‘Can we collect our reinsurance?’” he explained. “And then we build coalitions and go out and help them.”

The example of Wall Street’s attempts to resist financial regulation—and the help provided by the Chamber—is an illustrative one. The Chamber pounced early on Congress to dissuade it from passing the Consumer Financial Protection Agency Act. Donohue’s troops mounted grassroots and media onslaughts around the country, dispatching local chamber officials and business members to lobby local lawmakers, and running local advertisements directly targeting them. In Montana, the Chamber aired an ad targeting Senator Jon Tester that showed a man lying awake in bed in the middle of the night, staring at the alarm clock, while a voiceover intoned, “Call Senator Tester. Tell him to stop the CFPA, because small businesses can’t afford more economic pain.” The Chamber put millions into this sort of advertising.

It used similar tactics against health care reform, launching a campaign that was even larger and more elaborate. The Chamber recruited local political operatives and had them set up front groups to oppose the House and Senate bills, and it also coordinated a national ad onslaught. In Arkansas’s second district, for instance, the Chamber aired ads directly attacking Democratic Representative Vic Snyder for his support of the House bill. (Vic Snyder has since announced that he won’t seek reelection, such an uphill battle is he now facing.) It also established a branch of a front group, the Campaign for Responsible Health Reform, and hired a Little Rock Republican strategist to run it. The strategist, Bill Vickery, told me that his activities were “backed solely” by the Chamber.

In other words, a large part of what the Chamber sells is political cover. For multibillion-dollar insurers, drug makers, and medical device manufacturers who are too smart and image conscious to make public attacks of their own, the Chamber of Commerce is a friend who will do the dirty work. “I want to give them all the deniability they need,” says Donohue. That deniability is evidently worth a lot. According to a January article in the National Journal, six insurers alone—Aetna, Cigna, Humana, Kaiser Foundation Health Plans, UnitedHealth Group, and Wellpoint—pumped up to $20 million into the Chamber last year.

ddly, while Donohue casts himself as the voice of business, he has never worked for a corporation or any kind of for-profit concern—only for trade associations, nonprofits, and the federal government. The son of a production manager at the American Can Company, he was born in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island. After high school, he attended St. John’s and Adelphi universities, eventually earning an MBA. Early jobs included a stint as a fund-raiser for the Boy Scouts of America and, later, an aide to legendary disabled-persons rights activist Henry Viscardi, founder of the National Center for Disability Services. In a 1998 interview with Newsday, Viscardi recounted how Donohue made his ambition clear from the start. “I sat him down across the desk from me and asked what job he wanted,” said Viscardi. “He said, ‘I want your job.’ That’s Tom Donohue for you.”

In 1969, Donohue took a job at the U.S. Postal Service, where he stayed for seven years, working his way up the management ranks. Donohue’s first stint with the Chamber of Commerce began in 1976, when he was hired to the Chamber’s development department by the organization’s new president, Richard Lesher. The job involved the recruitment and cultivation of members and supporters, but Donohue soon took on a large variety of other projects as well. After Ronald Reagan entered the White House in 1981, Donohue made sure that the Chamber actively supported the new president’s agenda. “Donohue was a guy who was there—you could feel him. He got the members to get very aggressively behind the president,” says Wayne Valis, a special assistant to Reagan.

Donohue left the Chamber to take over the American Trucking Associations in 1984, quickly turning what was a moribund also-ran into a Washington powerhouse. “Prior to Donohue coming aboard I knew every time I went to work we’d be just kicked in the chops,” remembers Lana Batts, an ATA lobbyist. “When Tom came in, I was not going to be kicked. I’d be the kicker.” Donohue was known for sparing no expense to curry favor with members and impress lawmakers. “Tom’s biggest problem was that he ran out of buildings to name after member companies,” says Tim Lynch, another lobbyist who worked for Donohue at ATA. The funds, says Lynch, poured in. “He essentially scared the bejesus out of people that if they didn’t contribute more money, bad things would happen to their businesses in Washington.”

Donohue’s effectiveness at the ATA did not go unnoticed, and, in 1997, he was recruited back to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—this time to be its president. Characteristically, he kept his eye on the money. Recounts John Schulz, the journalist, “He calls me to his office, which he almost never did, and sits me down and says, ‘I’m going to ask you a favor and I don’t want you to fuck this up. You’re going to write that I’m turning down the Chamber for certain reasons. But that’s not what I’m really doing. I’m in negotiations and want to get a better deal out of them. I’m going to reject them publicly and then get more money out of them.’” (The Chamber denies the conversation took place and says that compensation “was never an issue in any of [Donohue’s] negotiations with the Chamber search committee.”)

hen Donohue took over the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the organization had fallen into dangerous disfavor with the Republican Party, with which it has always had a close, if complicated, relationship. It was ushered into existence by President Taft who, seeking out a counterweight to the labor movement, called in 1911 for a “central organization in touch with associations and chambers of commerce throughout the country.” Four months later, on April 12, 1912 (a year prior to the founding of the Federal Reserve), the Chamber of Commerce of the United States was founded.

The Chamber naturally leaned Republican, but it maintained mostly amiable relations with both parties. It was a close ally of Herbert Hoover, but it was also helpful to FDR’s National Recovery Administration. It opposed Richard Nixon’s health care proposals but also lobbied him to open trade with Moscow. It was instrumental in mobilizing support for tax cuts under Ronald Reagan and then George W. Bush, but it also helped to press for NAFTA under Bill Clinton, who in 1999 urged Donohue to travel to Havana to meet with Fidel Castro to pitch him on a chain of Chamber-backed Cuban Internet cafés. (The idea didn’t pan out, but Donohue remains a vocal advocate of ending the Cuban trade embargo.) Recently, the Chamber has also come out vocally against new laws targeting immigrants in Arizona, and has chided Republican lawmakers for not supporting subsidies for alternative energy.

Under Richard Lesher, who ran the organization from 1975 to 1997, the Chamber’s emphasis was primarily on influencing policy, and many of its ideas were broadcast via Biz-Net, its cable network. Lesher was, by all accounts, a good deal more ideological than Donohue, but also less of a political gamesman. It was this combination of traits that led Lesher to his bravest, but unluckiest, political decision: to cooperate with the Clinton White House on health care reform. Chamber members had been telling Lesher for years that their health care costs were out of control, and many supported a national policy of some kind. “I told the Republicans, ‘Look, guess what, there are some Chamber members who are Democrats,’” says Lesher. “‘Think about that.’ They’d roll their eyes when I said it, but the fact was we had a lot of conservative Democratic members who wanted to see health care get resolved.”

But the Clinton bill came a cropper, and the Republican minority pounced. John Boehner (now House minority leader) made his name on Capitol Hill spearheading a grassroots campaign to persuade businesses to abandon the Chamber. Hundreds did. The GOP took Congress the next year. “The Republicans made them walk the plank for a long time,” says John Motley, who was a lobbyist at the National Federation of Independent Businesses, one of the Chamber’s main rivals. It was this turn of events that led to the departure of Lesher and the hiring of Donohue to replace him.

Donohue had paid close attention to the debacle. When he returned in 1997, he immediately took steps to win the Chamber back into the GOP fold, supporting Republican initiatives and opposing Democratic ones. That practice has continued. Donohue’s chief lobbyist, Bruce Josten, can often be seen at press conferences with Boehner when the Republican leadership comes out opposing one or another bill. (The stimulus package, which promised to pump a lot of money into businesses that are members of the Chamber, was one notable exception: the Chamber supported it, and the Republicans did not.) Donohue’s opposition to any national health care plan under Obama was all but a given.

Donohue quickly closed down BizNet and shifted the Chamber toward brute-force lobbying. “Donohue brought in generalist lobbyists who knew about the politics but not the substance of the issues,” says Willard Workman, a Chamber vice president from 1988 to 2004. “They couldn’t go to the Hill and talk about an export-control regime, because they couldn’t spell ‘regime.’”

Above all, Donohue sought out fund-raising opportunities. “Donohue was much more hands-on than Lesher in terms of pursuing issues he thought were important—important to making money,” a former Chamber lobbyist told me. Inside the Chamber, this strategy was known colloquially as “views for dues.” According to the former lobbyist, “a large company before [Donohue] arrived would be paying maybe ten to twenty thousand, and overnight would be paying a million dollars. The message was to go after these major companies and get money from as many different funding sources as we could. In return they got greater influence and we did more of their bidding, if you will, on the Hill.”

A little bit of calculating also revealed to Donohue that the best money was in the behemoths. “Donohue told the membership department to shift away from smaller companies to larger ones who could pay larger dues and get more involved. Member numbers were reduced, but revenue increased,” says Hank Kopcial, who was head of membership services for Fortune 1000 companies when he left the Chamber in 2000.

If the Chamber had an ideology under Donohue, it was opportunism. “I don’t know whether [Donohue] is a Democrat, Republican, or independent,” says Workman. “And I worked with him for seven years.” Workman notes that Donohue has no qualms about receiving federal funds for the Chamber’s Center for International Private Enterprise. “He liked taking money from the federal government as much as from anyone else,” Workman recalls. “He said, ‘It’s all green.’”

Whatever his personal political beliefs may be, Donohue does like to assail the traditional right-wing golems—particularly unions, trial lawyers, environmentalists and regulators. (Ironically enough, though, the Chamber’s law firm, the National Chamber Litigation Center, involves itself in lawsuits against the federal government hundreds of times a year.) Rare indeed is the business regulation that the Chamber hasn’t denounced. A former SEC commissioner—a Republican, appointed by a Republican president—told me Donohue “was against just about everything we were trying to do.” Charles Jeffress, who was head of OSHA from 1997 to 2001, noticed a link between his work and the Chamber’s budget. “Everything we did that was regulatory in nature was a way for them to raise money from their members to fight government regulation,” he says.

When I asked Donohue why, for instance, the financial sector shouldn’t be more closely regulated in light of the recent meltdown, he shot back, “Would they have caught Madoff? Would they have caught some guy at Boeing or Caterpillar or anywhere else that was a crook? They wouldn’t have.”

He mused on, “There is no place in our society where there is not warts. The media? Wow. The Chamber business? The lobbying business? The business business? The church? The Boy Scouts? We got jerks every place.”

f Donohue has an aversion to stricter rules from Washington, it may be due in part to his own reputation for an easygoing approach to spending. According to a former Chamber employee, Donohue, when he was working under Lesher in the 1970s and early ’80s, was repeatedly rebuked for making use of chauffeured cars, and in at least one instance hiring a private plane for a business trip. “He always needed perks,” Lesher told me.

When Donohue left the American Trucking Associations in 1997, his successor, Walter McCormick, publicly accused Donohue of leaving the ATA in a financial mess, as the National Journal reported in 1999. McCormick even hired a Washington litigator specializing in white-collar crime to investigate the ATA’s finances under Donohue, although no lawsuit resulted. The Chamber claims that the investigators concluded ATA “was one of the best run trade associations” and its chief financial officer received an apology from the association’s board. But an ATA employee brought on by McCormick with intimate knowledge of the organization’s finances at the time offered a different view. “There was a whole bunch of organizational units which were odd,” says the employee. “All of those units were separate entities, separately incorporated. Money was moving around from one to the other to the other.” Adds journalist John Schulz: “He said to me once, ‘It’s just sort of one big pot and how we divide it up is immaterial.’”

The company narrative was that Donohue was brought in to recapitalize the Chamber. But as fast as the money came in under Donohue, it seemed to go out even faster. According to Mohammed Babah, who was director of the Chamber’s finance department until 2000, the Chamber held significant savings when Donohue took over in 1997 (a fact corroborated by Richard Lesher). Within two years, however, Donohue had spent the sum in its entirety, claims Babah, much of it going to salary increases for his inner circle, his travel expenses, and his lavish parties, thrown in rented spaces such as Union Station and the Air and Space Museum. “By the time I left I was scared. He was just spending and spending,” Babah says. The Chamber insists that in fact the organization’s reserve account was in negative territory when Donohue started and that Donohue built up the reserves.

By 2001, the Chamber was low enough on cash that it took out a $30 million line of credit on its building on H Street, a lithic beaux arts building situated off Lafayette Park within shouting distance of—and not appreciably smaller than—the White House. (The Chamber claims the line of credit was taken out because the cash balances existing when Donohue came to the Chamber had been pledged to an IT vendor, and that the line is still used for capital improvements.) For extra income the Chamber now rents its roof to Fox News for the network’s White House remotes. In 2008, the last year for which records are available, the Chamber posted operating losses of over $2.5 million and a net asset loss of over $29 million, according to its IRS filings. Meanwhile, Donohue’s salary, the lion’s share of it a revenue-based bonus, has more than tripled since he started. In the estimation of one former Chamber staffer who’s kept close track of its finances, “If Donohue’s plane goes down or he gets sick, the bubble’s going to pop. It’s kind of like the U.S. government: there’s no money in the bank.”

till, it’s not Donohue’s spending that poses the greatest danger to his leadership. It’s that large parts of the Chamber’s base (Donohue likes to claim three million members, but the “U.S. Chamber Web Effort to Set the Record Straight Amid Orchestrated Smear Campaign” page on its Web site puts the total at 300,000) have come to find themselves at odds with the organization’s aims and methods. While I talked to many local chamber heads who said they rely on the Chamber’s resources, I also spoke to many who are coming to resent Donohue. “Their stances have occasionally alienated local businesses,” says Tim Sink, president of the Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce in New Hampshire. In Sink’s region, the Chamber ran health care attack ads targeting Congressman Paul Hodes, a popular legislator with bipartisan support who’s now running for Senate. “It put the local chambers in an awkward situation, I can tell you that.”

A particularly awkward instance of this took place in 2004, when Donohue publicly exhorted Chamber companies to stop doing business in Mississippi, alleging that the state’s courts had become too friendly to lawsuits against businesses. This came as a surprise to most of Mississippi’s businesses and local chambers of commerce, few if any of whom had been notified of Donohue’s exhortation in advance. That same year, the Chamber’s Institute for Legal Reform became involved in an attorney general race in Washington State, waging a campaign via a front group called the Voters Education Committee. The Chamber’s interventions met with such broad public disfavor that Steve Leahy, president of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce at the time, had to send out 10,000 e-mails distancing his organization from the U.S. Chamber. “We had a lot of cleaning up we had to do on their behalf,” Leahy told me. Even the institute’s director from 1999 to 2002, James Wootton, whom Donohue appointed, regretted at least one attack ad campaign he waged against an Ohio judge, one that resulted in a suit against the Chamber. “I came to believe that we probably shouldn’t have run those ads,” Wootton told me.

Other chamber heads have taken similar steps to separate themselves from the national Chamber. “I now have a standard e-mail saying we’re not a chapter of the U.S. Chamber that I have to send out a couple of times a week,” says Timothy Hulbert, president of the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce. Stan Kosciuszko, president of the Butler County, Pennsylvania, Chamber of Commerce, which is no longer a member of the Chamber, said, “They’ve abandoned the interests of smaller chambers like mine for their larger corporate members.”

But corporate members, including some of the larger ones, have been alienated too. The withdrawal of Apple from the Chamber’s membership roster was the result of a particularly clumsy campaign. It began last summer, when a senior vice president of the Chamber wrote a petition to the EPA calling for a public hearing on the science of climate change in order to present a “credible weighing” of the evidence. The author of the petition, William Kovacs, a vice president of the Chamber, told the Los Angeles Times that it “would be the science of climate change on trial” and referred it as “the Scopes monkey trial of the 21st century.” Not only did Apple drop its membership in response; so did the utilities Exelon, Pacific Gas and Electric, and PNM Resources. Among those who stayed in the fold, several companies, such as Nike and Johnson & Johnson, wrote stern letters of rebuke to Donohue. Donohue upbraided Kovacs but has done little else to address the concerns of the angered companies. “We may have gotten a phone call,” said Brian Herzog, director of government affairs for PG&E. “Within the universe of Chamber members some are more equal than others.”

Donohue’s tactics can also raise hackles in the home office. “I used to get strong complaints and resentment from local officials and politicians. They’d say, ‘You have no business here, you don’t know what you’re doing,’” a former Chamber lobbyist said. “But the complaints were rebuffed. The real test was whether we were making money off the effort, and we were.”

Donohue and his senior colleagues downplay the internal disagreements. “You’re never going to have one hundred percent unanimity,” Bruce Josten, the Chamber’s chief lobbyist, told me. “Never. There is inherent tension. There is tension between the oil companies and the gas companies. There is tension between the retailers and the wholesalers. There is tension between what used to be investment banks—we don’t have those anymore—and retail banks. I mean, come on. I laugh every day when someone calls and asks what does the business community think.”

And Donohue is unconcerned about complaints of alleged favoritism toward large corporations. “What we try to do is build an unholy alliance between big guys and little guys,” he said. “Let’s take a newspaper. Where do they get their money? Who put the ads in? It wasn’t Mary Little Good Shoes, it was Macy’s.” He added, “You can no longer run a huge national organization on the backs of small companies as they did many years ago.”

What becomes clear from observing Donohue’s record is that, for all his opposition to federal oversight, he is a quintessential creature of Washington. Like the head of any bureaucracy or agency, he measures his success far less by results than by the size of his budget. That’s why the Chamber’s agenda hews so closely to that of its largest contributors. It’s also why, even in front of dues payers such as Birmingham business leaders, Donohue is happy to trumpet how much money the Chamber is taking from them. Those funds don’t need to lead to accomplishments; they are the accomplishments.

Toward the end of our conversation in Birmingham, Donohue began to talk about the challenges of leading an organization. “The CEO in a major company now, if he lasts five years, he’s a hero,” Donohue said. It was clear that he was in part talking about himself. But Donohue has already lasted twelve years as Chamber president, and at the beginning of his tenure the board amended the bylaws to extend the mandatory retirement age past sixty-five. In 2009, he traveled 166 days of the year, coaxing open checkbooks, visiting twenty-seven states, and giving seventy-five speeches. All of this bodes well for his staying power. Still, “I am not powerful,” he said at one point. “The institution is powerful. If I walked out of the Chamber tomorrow, wouldn’t anybody return my phone calls except for a couple of my friends.” Given the anti-corporate rhetoric among Republicans, and the backlash against him in other quarters, this is a contingency he should consider. But for the moment Donohue is still the undisputed master of getting corporate giants to show him the money. And in a Washington that runs on money, that show must go on. 

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James Verini is a journalist in New York. You can read his work at  
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