The Chamber’s effectiveness depends on forging accord among businesses of all sizes, types and regions, said Dirk Van Dongen, the longtime head of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, a Chamber member.
“The Chamber has the challenge of kind of herding all the business community cats, if you will, into some coherency,” Van Dongen said.
The policy process is elaborate.
“It’s not Tom Donohue throwing darts at a dartboard in his office to decide how to position the U.S. Chamber,” said David Adkisson, the president and chief executive officer of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and U.S. Chamber board member. “It’s a very deliberate, relatively formal process.”
Some issues, such as the major Chamber priorities of trade and infrastructure spending, aren’t particularly divisive.
Others are tougher. Donohue has repeatedly acknowledged net neutrality divides the tech community, but the Chamber opposes the Federal Communications Commission’s move last month to reclassify Internet service so it’s treated more like a utility.
Then there are issues such as tax reform, where “you’ll never get the business community all on one page,” said Josten.
Donohue, who earned about $5.5 million from the Chamber in 2013, encourages debate and brings in experts to guide members to a policy position.
When a decision is made, he doesn’t back off, says Xerox’s Elizondo, even if members threaten to walk.
“I have seen the outcome where there is a faction of the group that doesn’t agree and sometimes there is a price to pay, but it’s good to know the process for getting to the answer is a pretty good one at the Chamber,” she said.
High-profile disputes have been bleeding into the public domain.
During 2009 and 2010, a group of companies, including Apple Inc., Exelon Corp. and Pacific Gas and Electric, quit the Chamber over its opposition to the Environmental Protection Agency’s plans to regulate greenhouse gases and other climate-change-related issues. Nike Inc. left the Chamber’s board. Other members, including Microsoft Corp. and Johnson & Johnson, issued statements disagreeing with the Chamber’s position.
In 2011, Yahoo Inc. also quit,reportedly over intellectual property legislation the Chamber supported and Yahoo opposed.
More than 40 local chambers issued statements distancing themselves from the national organization’s 2010 midterm election spending, citing a backlash, Politico reported. Several local chamber presidents interviewed by the Center for Public Integrity said, sometimes with deep sighs, they are frequently called upon to explain their relationship with the U.S. Chamber.
“People come in and say we don’t want to be a member of the Fayetteville Chamber because we don’t want to be a member of the U.S. Chamber because we don’t agree with the policies of the U.S. Chamber,” said Steve Clark, the president of the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce in Arkansas.
But not everyone who quits can stay away.
Bob Linscheid, head of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, said his group left the U.S. Chamber for a few years, a rupture caused largely by differences over climate change and other environmental issues.
Linscheid re-upped its membership in early 2013. “I felt it best to not take our marbles and go home,” he said.
The two groups agree on the need for immigration reform, although Linscheid doesn’t believe it will happen anytime soon, no matter what the Chamber wants.
“They’re not going to be able to deliver. I’m frustrated by that, but I’m also a realist.” Linscheid said.
Exelon, the giant electric utility, rejoined in 2012, said spokesman Paul Adams.
Worse than disagreements among members, sometimes the Chamber publicly disagrees with itself.
Last year, the U.S. Trade Representative’s office was trying to prod foreign countries to improve enforcement of intellectual property rights — the kind of arcane but routine Washington ritual that can have high stakes for companies doing business abroad.
In February 2014, the U.S. Chamber’s Global Intellectual Property Center urged the trade representative to downgrade India’s status because it “has not shown a record of engagement on these issues.”
The U.S.-India Business Council, another Chamber program that represents companies doing business in India, didn’t agree. Ron Somers, then the council’s president, wrote in March 2014 that a downgrade would be unwarranted.
Two weeks later, David Chavern, then the Chamber’s chief operating officer, sent a third letter to the trade representative stressing the U.S.-India Business Council’s policy autonomy — and the Chamber’s disagreement with its position.
“We understand that a number of Chamber and USIBC joint members, including some companies identified as directors on the USIBC’s letterhead, do not support key elements of the USIBC’s submission,” he said.
Pfizer Inc., a member of both groups, sent its own letter saying it didn’t support the U.S.-India Business Council’s position, and soon its name disappeared from council’s online list of members, though it was recently restored.
By mid-April, Somers resigned to start a consulting practice.
'Hand in glove' with the Senate
In January, with the new Congress getting underway, the new chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, Orrin Hatch, unveiled his 2015 agenda in a speech at the Chamber.
The Utah Republican called tax reform the top priority and said “all the people [at the Chamber] work hand in glove with us and help us to understand when we’re wrong and help us to understand how to make things right.”
It will certainly keep doing that. And just like in past election cycles, the Chamber is positioned to be a major player during the 2016 election cycle and will likely continue to throw its considerable weight behind Republicans.
Strategists on its February call said they are already building up resources, and Donohue told members they were welcome to come in and talk about individual races.
The Chamber will put its resources to work immediately. Reed, the political strategist, said it would back Richmond County District Attorney Dan Donovan, a Republican, in New York’s upcoming special election for a congressional seat representing Staten Island and part of Brooklyn.
In Mississippi, where there’s another special election, “It’s tea party central. We’ve got to keep an eye on this,” Reed said during the call, adding it is likely to go to a runoff.