Tom Donohue and the Chamber of Open Secrets

By David Swanson

Pulling pranks on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is just too easy. The Yes Men held a press conference this week pretending to speak for the chamber and fooled the journalists in the room, because “We are no longer going to promote the destruction of the earth’s climate” is such a compelling position that it’s very tempting to imagine that any human being could adopt it.

But Tom Donohue and his chamber take the opposite position and have for years. William Kovacs, a senior vice president at the chamber, told the LA Times he’d like to stage a “Scopes monkey trial of the 21st century” to deny, not evolution, but human-made climate change.

In place of William Jennings Bryan arguing “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I put it to you: if we were descended from monkeys, then why aren’t I stupid, hirsute, and scratching my purple ass?” we would have a chamber lawyer advocating “My fellow believers in free enterprise, let me ask you: if liberal elites who claim we’re heating up the planet are to be trusted, then I’m sure we’ll all evolve into heat-loving lizards, so what’s the worry?”

How does one mock the U.S. Chamber of Commerce? Only by announcing an outbreak of sanity. Here are some other similar announcements I can imagine being made at phony press conferences:

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce announces that minimum wage laws don’t actually hurt workers.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce concludes that deregulating financial industries does not really create jobs.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce announces that the right to unionize is not, in truth, an infringement on workers’ rights.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce announces that the Family and Medical Leave Act has not, as it turns out, destroyed families.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce announces its support for healthcare as a human right.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce concludes that the deregulation that allowed the collapse of Wall Street will not actually be best remedied by more of the same.

A U.S. Chamber of Commerce report finds that bailing out bankers is not, strictly speaking, free enterprise after all.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce now opposes tax breaks for the off-shoring of jobs as detrimental to local job creation.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is no longer proud of having gutted a legal settlement for tobacco victims.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce discovers that corporations are not homo sapiens.

A U.S. Chamber of Commerce study finds that restricting the bribing of political candidates does not infringe on our freedom of speech.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce announces that funding campaigns to defeat majority views in elections, courts, legislatures, and presidential actions does not actually advance democracy.

All of these announcements and breakthroughs would, of course, line up with the overwhelming majority understanding in the United States. It would be easy to believe that the chamber meant them. But these are all announcements that only the Yes Men or other pranksters would make.

I’m working with a coalition of groups at and have been reading up on just how crazy and just how massive this chamber is. It’s not your local or state chamber of commerce. Those are not chapters of a national entity, and they often oppose what it is doing. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is a major force for the rightwingiest right-wing positions. It buys ads, it makes campaign “contributions”, it lobbies, it sues, it presents court arguments, it runs a “think tank”, it funds front groups that attack political candidates, and it brags about how much money it spends on activities it never reports to the government as legally required.

The chamber promoted financial deregulation and is now pouring tens of millions of dollars into a campaign to oppose any regulation. The chamber claims, absurdly, that its purpose is to create jobs. How does one parody that? Only be falsely announcing the opposite. There’s no other way it can be done. Imposing stiffer regulations on Wall Street is backed by over three-quarters of Americans, at least prior to the chamber’s new ad campaign.

I used to work with ACORN on local living wage and minimum wage campaigns, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was our most powerful adversary, swooping in and taking us to court after we passed higher standards through public votes. Why was New Orleans so poor and ill-equipped when Hurricane Katrina hit? One reason is that the chamber led a successful effort to overturn a minimum wage law that we had put in place. The chamber has run ads against the Employee Free Choice Act claiming to be speaking in defense of workers.

The chamber supports the idea that corporations are persons with human and civil rights, as well as the idea that spending money on political candidates (which we used to call bribery) is a free-speech right, even for corporations. The chamber has submitted a lengthy amicus brief in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission arguing against restrictions on corporate election spending on the grounds that this would infringe on corporate free speech and that the single greatest victim of this infringement would be the Chamber of Commerce itself, which — in the brief, as on its website — falsely claims to have three million companies as members. In contrast, the American Independent Business Alliance has submitted a brief arguing the opposite view and considers the chamber’s position dangerous to businesses other than Wal-Mart and Goldman Sachs. The AIBA denounces the chamber as favoring the purchase of political favors over engagement in actual competitive enterprise.

As revealed by Mother Jones magazine this week, the chamber actually has 200,000 to 300,000 members, and falling. Companies that have pulled out of the chamber in protest of its promotion of climate destruction include: Apple, Exelon Energy, Pacific Gas and Electric, and the Public Service Co. of New Mexico. Even Nike has dropped its Board of Directors position while maintaining its membership. Even General Electric says that the chamber does not speak for it on climate issues, while maintaining its membership. When GE has to distance itself from you on the environment, you know something’s wrong. And companies like Wal-Mart, Target, and Kelly Services Inc. have objected to the chamber’s opposition to healthcare.

Who’s running this national train wreck? Tom Donohue, former CEO of the American Trucking Associations, currently serving on the board of directors of Union Pacific Corporation, a railroad company that hauls a lot of coal and has given Donohue over $1.3 million in pay plus over $3.8 million in shares, and another $700,000 to the chamber.

What can we do to raise our voices in Washington, D.C., and help lower the decibel level of the chamber’s screams? Start here:

David Swanson is the author of the new book “Daybreak: Undoing the Imperial Presidency and Forming a More Perfect Union” by Seven Stories Press. You can order it and find out when tour will be in your town:

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