EXCLUSIVE: The Chamber Of Commerce’s Surprising Comments On A Carbon Tax And How It Could Change The Game In Congress

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"EXCLUSIVE: The Chamber Of Commerce’s Surprising Comments On A Carbon Tax And How It Could Change The Game In Congress"

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“We don’t have a position on a carbon tax. But that would be interesting to think about.”

That wasn’t what we were expecting to hear from David Chavern, the Chief Operating Officer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber was one of the earliest and most important backers of the climate denial movement and has consistently stood in the way of any measure to address climate change. It fought tooth and nail against the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill in 2009, persisting in its scorched-earth opposition despite losing members as large as Apple over it.

So for Chavern to sing the praises of a carbon tax in a sit-down with myself and ThinkProgress editor-in-chief Judd Legum was a bit of a surprise. Yet sing Chavern did: “Why is there not a debate on, you know, a legislative debate on cap-and-trade versus carbon tax? Carbon tax is much more efficient, more neutral, much more, uh, you know, it doesn’t pick winners and losers.”

“I think that would be an interesting debate.”

It’s possible, probably likely, that Chavern was playing to his audience, making the Chamber seem like a reasonable group open to a serious effort to reduce emissions just up until the point where a piece of legislation with an actual chance of passing comes up, which they plan to reject out of hand. But if Chavern is being sincere, then the implications for the climate could be huge.

The last time someone said the Chamber of Commerce might support a carbon tax, the Chamber sued them. The Yes Men, an environmentalist prankster collective that impersonates “big-time criminals in order to publicly humiliate them,” staged a mock press conference emblazoned with the Chamber’s logo in October 2009, just as the national debate over cap-and-trade legislation was coming to a crescendo.

At the conference, which was sophisticated enough to dupe major news outlets, the faux-Chamber defended a carbon tax in terms very similar to the ones Chavern used in our interview this year. “A carbon tax,” so-called spokesman Hingo Sembra said, “means less need for legislating by Congress, a surer business environment for companies, and a simpler, competition-friendly mechanism for reducing carbon than the bill’s current cap-and-trade approach.”

The Chamber’s suit came about a week after the Yes Men’s stunt. “These infringing and fraudulent acts are antithetical to public debate on important issues,” said Steven Law, the Chamber’s general counsel, “because they prevent the public and the press from knowing the [Chamber's] true position” on climate change legislation.

Law had something of a point. It really was important, while the Senate was weighing the ultimately failed Kerry-Boxer cap-and-trade bill, for the public to understand the Chamber’s position. The Chamber of Commerce is the largest and among the most influential business lobbies in the country, founded in 1912 at the behest of President William Howard Taft. Taft wanted business’ “assistance in carrying on the government in reference to those matters that affect the business and the business welfare of the country,” and did not “wish to limit [industry's] discretion in that matter.”

Since then, the Chamber has grown roughly by a factor of 100, from 324 member-businesses to about 300,000. That second figure, though lower than the 3 million members the Chamber used to falsely claim it had, is still misleading: a handful of members provide the bulk of the lobby’s budget, making the Chamber more dependent on its 15 or so top donors than the remaining 299,985.

“Bulk” is also a good word for the Chamber’s lobbying clout in general. Since 1998, the Chamber has spent over one billion dollars on lobbying — over three times as much as its nearest competitor, General Electric. If dollars translate to heft, then the Chamber is the Hill’s 800-pound gorilla.

For about two decades, the lobbying greyback has devoted a good bit of its attentions to tearing down the climate change movement. That’s not a history they were keen on talking about with us: Chavern tried to walk their opposition to climate action back in our conversation, saying with consummate professionalism that “I don’t think we’ve taken a view on the causes” of climate change. Technically that might be true, in the sense that the reality of climate science isn’t the sort of thing that the Chamber likes to write position papers on.

But behind a sheer curtain, the Chamber has been one of the most powerful lobbying forces working against climate action.

As early as 1992, the Chamber was bankrolling a national tour aimed at discrediting climate science. Its efforts really heated up around 1997, when its current president, Tom Donohue, took over. Donahue is widely credited with steering the organization in a more confrontational direction, and energy issues weren’t exceptions to the new rule. William Kovacs, the current head of the Chamber’s environmental policy division, was hired in 1998, and set about using his perch to argue that climate change is “about one percent from human activity” and, as recently as 2009, to call for a “Scopes Monkey Trial” challenging climate science.

The Chamber’s work on climate went well beyond rhetoric. It spent $17 million in the early months of 2009, when the cap and trade debate was peaking in the House, on lobbying. The Center for Public Integrity, which closely tracks lobbying and money in politics, wrote that the Chamber “led a high-profile campaign against the legislation,” including “a slew of advertisements opposing the bill” that aired “on the Sunday morning network TV news shows avidly watched by Washington policymakers.” The Chamber set up an entire subsidiary organization, the Institute for 21st Century Energy, to promote its view of climate and energy issues. 94 percent of the lobby’s $32 million in 2010 federal campaign donations went to climate deniers.

The Chamber’s opposition became such a prominent part of the climate fight that 350.org, a major climate change activist group, launched a campaign dedicated solely to getting small businesses and corporations to denounce the Chamber’s stance on climate.

The scorched-earth campaign against the Waxman-Markey bill cost the Chamber (though not enough to prevent it from pushing the Keystone XL pipeline). Apple was hardly the only company to jump ship; Nike and a number of other large corporations resigned from the Chamber in protest. At that point, the Chamber had so alienated the Obama Administration that Secretary of Energy Steven Chu publicly celebrated the defections.

So what if the Chamber is looking to back down from another climate fight? The organization has long maintained that it is open to carbon regulations in principle even if it’s always opposed them bitterly in practice. Chavern told us that the only reason they hadn’t taken a position on a carbon tax yet is that “no one’s proposed it,” which sounds open-minded but is false: Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT) introduced the Climate Protection Act and Sustainable Energy Act, together setting up a carbon tax system, in February of this year.

Suppose that the Senate were to start making serious moves on the Boxer-Sanders bills, and the Chamber’s comments represent a sincere interest in not opposing, or even supporting, the bills. Could that make a difference?

To begin with, any carbon tax proposal is in for tough legislative sledding. In early August, House Republicans passed a bill that would bar the President from using executive power to set up a de facto carbon tax. Though similar legislation would obviously never see the light of the day in the Senate, the vote was a symbolic effort that signaled the House would never approve a carbon tax. House and Senate Republicans are already hitting red state Democrats on their support for a carbon tax, real or imagined. And a huge percentage of Republican legislators, including the entire House leadership, has signed a Koch-sponsored “No Climate Tax” pledge.

How might Chamber lobbying make a dent in this seemingly implacable opposition? It’s a harder question to answer than you might think. Though pundits and activists routinely complain about the influence of big business on the political process, political scientists have had a devil of a time quantifying just how effective lobbying is. Part of the problem is that lobbying spending breakdowns aren’t disclosed publicly; we know that the Chamber has spent over $1 billion on lobbying since 1998, but we don’t know how much of that was spent on any particular issue. As a result, it’s hard to connect lobbying efforts to any one bill’s success or failure.

What’s particularly curious is that political scientists haven’t tried all that hard to solve this problem. “After attending the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association,” Professor Mark A. Smith wrote, “[a business publication editor] lamented that he searched the program and found not a single study on corporations among the thousands of papers presented at the convention.”

Smith, who teaches at the University of Washington, is one of a handful of experts who focuses on the influence of corporations on American politics. I called him to get his thoughts, based on the available research, on what a Chamber flip on a carbon tax might mean.

The most important takeaway was that, while we don’t know exactly how much a Chamber’s shift would matter, it almost certainly would count. “I think [Chamber support] would make a difference” on the carbon tax debate, Smith said. “You’d have to have parts of their constituencies rise up and support it.”

You can see what that might look like in some business’ recent positioning. Exxon Mobil, hardly a natural constituency for climate change efforts, has spoken warmly of a carbon tax. While the oil and natural gas giant isn’t actively lobbying in favor of it, its opposition to a cap-and-trade bill helped Republicans kill the bill in Obama’s first term. If these companies decide to pressure the Chamber to take a favorable position on a carbon tax (there’s no sign of that yet), that could snowball, leading to more Chamber members taking a moderate-to-friendly stance on the measure.

The main way that business lobbies work, Smith emphasized, is conveying information to legislators. Somewhat counterintuitively, lobbyists tend to most heavily lobby legislators who already strongly agree with them, in large part because it’s almost impossible to persuade a legislator who has firmly held views to switch.

Lobbyists, then, make an impact by acting more like spies than mafia dons. They provide intelligence about other legislators’ views or parliamentary maneuvering, more detailed information on the priorities of the constituencies they represent, and policy research that saves the legislator’s staff immense amounts of time while simultaneously shaping the legislator’s information diet in ways favorable to the lobbyist’s clients. Under rare conditions, it’s possible for lobbying to change a legislator’s mind, but that generally only works if the legislator doesn’t have strong views on the topic, it’s a very salient issue for the general public, and the vote is really close.

This theory of lobbying, developed in a famous 2006 paper called “Lobbying as Legislative Subsidy,” helps break down the ways in which the Chamber’s flip on a carbon tax might matter concretely. First, the Chamber would help simply by not mobilizing an appearance of public opposition to the bill. “I think their greatest success isn’t in going to Congressman X and getting them to do something,” Smith said, “but in creating a public environment of skepticism [about climate science]…when you’ve got the public, it’s a lot easier to influence legislators.” Given how a big a deal any fight over a carbon tax would be, a pressure campaign from the Chamber might be able to influence fence-sitters to oppose the bill. The simple absence of that pressure could be a huge boon, especially given that there’s broad-based support from the public and experts across the political spectrum for a carbon tax.

A neutral or supportive Chamber would also free up strong supporters of a carbon tax and drain energy from opponents. Opponents counting on a business backlash against the bill would be publicly embarrassed. They’d be forced to fight a rearguard campaign in defense of their central argument: a carbon tax would hurt American businesses and the economy. “If you were to propose something, and really go full steam on it, and then the negative reaction starts, you lost faith, you lost credibility,” says Smith. “The way you get [advance warning] is by regular communication with business groups.”

Finally, the Chamber could help with knowledge about pre-vote procedures. A lot would have to happen with a carbon tax before getting to a final floor vote — committee markup, CBO scoring, floor vote scheduling, and so on. The Chamber’s hyper-connected, hyper-experienced lobbyists could provide critical backup for carbon tax supporters navigating those labyrinthine processes.

Of course, this is pure hypothetical speculation: the Chamber hasn’t actually reversed its position yet. During our conversation, Smith became increasingly skeptical that the Chamber was all that serious about potentially supporting a carbon tax. He wanted more proof: “It’s one thing to say that, it’s another thing to put it out in a document that exists forever. I think that would take it to the next level.”

One stumbling block for the Chamber is the fact that they aren’t ready to admit that human activity is causing climate change and that it’s a serious problem. During our umpteenth attempt to press Chavern on question of the cause of climate change, he threw up his hands. “We’re not scientists,” he avowed.

We pointed out that they weren’t economists, either, yet managed to have some fairly strong views on whether cap and trade would hurt the economy.

“Actually, we have economists,” Chavern retorted.

So why don’t you have climate scientists on staff too?

He took a deep breath. “It’s a fair point.”

We thought so.

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