Over the weekend, CNN’s Ed Henry drummed up the idea that President Obama should to go to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the world’s largest right-wing big business lobby, to give a speech as a “peace offering.” The Chamber, which helped kill President Obama’s initiatives on climate change, clean energy, labor reform, and lobbied against Obama’s reforms on health care and Wall Street reform, also funneled $75 million into helping elect Republicans in the midterm elections. “It would be particularly good timing for Obama to try and set the agenda and tee up his State of the Union address later in the month, not to mention hit the reset button on his fractured relationship with the business community,” wrote Henry, eagerly cheering on the move. Yesterday, the Huffington Post’s Sam Stein confirmed that administration officials are indeed interested in reaching out to the Chamber.
However, Henry, in advocating the speech, promulgates falsehoods manufactured by the Chamber. First, Henry claims that Obama’s visit to the Chamber would help “bury the hatchet” with the “business community.” The Chamber does not represent the entire American business community — not by a long shot. Although the Chamber has misrepresented itself and claimed to represent 3 million businesses (later modified to 300,000 after a Mother Jones exposé), in reality it actually represents a small group of multinational corporations. In 2008, half of its donations came from just 45 corporate donors. In 2009, nearly half of the Chamber’s money came from a single donation from the health insurance industry trade association. Moreover, the Chamber doesn’t appear to truly care about jobs or small businesses — evidenced by the fact that the Chamber killed legislation to create millions of new clean energy jobs and expand America’s competitive advantage in clean energy technology.
As ThinkProgress has noted, journalists often give undue credit to the Chamber as the “voice for business” simply because the Chamber is an old institution, they associate it with separate and distinct local Chambers that actually represent small businesses, and because the U.S. Chamber has one of the most sophisticated media outreach programs in Washington, D.C. But the Chamber does not deserve such respect, either from journalists or President Obama. Despite the “U.S.” in the Chamber’s name, the Chamber has consistently placed the priorities of its select corporate members over the interest of the American people:
— The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has long opposed women’s rights. For example, the Chamber lobbied against Sen. Al Franken’s (D-MN) bill to allow victims of rape to file a lawsuit against their defense contractor employers. The Chamber also lobbied against the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, the Paycheck Fairness Act, and numerous other bills to address systematic gender inequality.
— The U.S Chamber of Commerce has been the driving force against consumer, worker, and public safety laws for nearly a century. This year, it lobbied against regulating BPA, a chemical found to cause birth defects and genital mutations. The Chamber has a history of fighting work place safety regulations, the Clean Air Act, the Mine Safety Act, and other fundamental programs used to strengthen American society.
— The U.S. Chamber of Commerce helped President Bush in his attempt to privatize Social Security and his drive to deregulate Wall Street. Even during President Roosevelt’s era, the Chamber lobbied against the New Deal agenda, especially the passage of Social Security. After its members helped cause the Great Depression, the Chamber still fought against regulating Wall Street as well as measures such as unemployment insurance. Chamber officials charged that Roosevelt was attempting to “Sovietize America.”
— The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is responsible for many of the policies that have made America the most unequal in terms of income/wealth distribution in the industrialized world. On tax policy, the Chamber has pushed efforts to repeal the estate tax while helping to pass the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. Corporate tax loopholes promoted by the Chamber ensure that corporations like ExxonMobil pay zero corporate income taxes while regular American workers foot much of the Treasury’s bill. The Chamber also opposed the creation of a minimum wage, and has lobbied against nearly every increase in the federal minimum wage.
— The U.S. Chamber of Commerce doesn’t even necessarily represent American businesses. As first reported by ThinkProgress, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently began a fundraising program soliciting foreign corporations to give to the Chamber’s account that in turn was used to run attack ads during the midterm elections. The Chamber admitted that it fundraises from foreign donors, but has refused to reveal how it finances its political campaign expenditures. ThinkProgress noted that the Chamber has aided its foreign members by lobbying this year to kill a bill to close tax loopholes for businesses that ship jobs overseas, and has even sponsored seminars to teach businesses how to ship their jobs to places like China.
— The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has consistently sided with polluters and the fossil fuel industry. Not only has the Chamber challenged the science of climate change, but after BP’s oil spill, Chamber CEO Tom Donohue said American taxpayers should pay for the clean up.
— The U.S. Chamber of Commerce practices the politics of division and hate when it serves their corporate interests. Throughout 2010, the Chamber worked closely with hate television star Glenn Beck, who calls President Obama a “racist” who has a “deep-seated hatred for white people.” Top Chamber lobbyists met secretly with Beck at a meeting in June to plan the midterm elections, and Beck has sponsored on-air fundraisers for the Chamber. Similarly, the Chamber joined Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) to eagerly brand political opponents — like labor organizers and liberal intellectuals — as communists during McCarthy’s red scare.
— The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has worked to give corporations unfettered control of government. For instance, the Chamber successfully filed an amicus brief in the Citizens United case to roll back nearly a century of campaign finance laws. Because of the Chamber’s efforts, corporations can spend unlimited amounts in American elections. Now the Chamber is attempting to repeal legislation aimed at discouraging American businesses from bribing foreign governments.
— The U.S. Chamber of Commerce fought every attempt at health reform, from Truman to Johnson to Nixon to Clinton to Obama’s efforts to help the American people gain access to quality health care. The Chamber even tried to stop the passage of Medicare under President Johnson.
— The U.S. Chamber of Commerce often places the profits of its member companies over American foreign policy objectives. Last year, the Chamber lobbied against President Obama’s efforts to place economic sanctions on Iran. In 1941, the Chamber was one of the most outspoken opponents of intervening in World War II (Chamber officials feared that war would give Roosevelt more power and wartime spending would lead to higher deficits, then higher taxes).
— The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has a sordid history with civil rights. It opposed key planks of the Civil Rights Act, and lobbied against the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Recently, the Chamber paid for campaign advertising to help Sen.-elect Rand Paul (R-KY), who told ThinkProgress he too opposed the ADA.
If Obama chooses to address the Chamber, he should draw a line in the sand, as Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) did when he spoke to the Chamber in October. President Obama should work with any stakeholder when it serves the American people and America’s best interests. If he chooses to make peace with the Chamber, it should be on mutual terms and on policies which benefit America — not only the Chamber’s tiny clique of corporate members.