At a news conference Monday, a fake group announced that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is switching sides to endorse climate change legislation. Chamber officials interrupted the meeting to expose the hoax.
But in an announcement that wasn't fake, the chamber — truly one of the 800-pound gorillas of Washington lobbying — disclosed that it spent $34.7 million last quarter to influence Congress and the administration.
The disclosure report, filed Monday in the Senate, shows a dramatic jump in the chamber's lobbying activity. The organization, which claims as members 300,000 companies across the spectrum of American business, spent $10 million in the first three months of 2009, and $7.4 million in the second quarter.
The new quarterly total of nearly $35 million nearly matches the chamber's annual lobbying budget of just six years ago.
A likely reason for the spending spike is President Obama's legislative agenda and the chamber's response to it. The group supported the Obama stimulus package, but it is fighting vigorously against the initiatives on health care, financial re-regulation and climate change.
It's the climate change bill that has spawned a rift within the chamber membership — a debate that expands from the legislative strategy to larger questions about how the chamber operates, and whether the organization is slipping behind the times.
Dissent Among The Ranks
Several high-profile corporations allege that on climate change, the organization represents only a hard-line faction of the 300,000 companies that it claims as members.
Dissent on the climate change legislation led utilities PG&E, Exelon and PMN Resources, plus Apple and Levi Strauss, to resign from the chamber. Nike resigned from the chamber's board of directors. Johnson & Johnson, General Electric and Entergy remain members but have criticized the stance on climate change.
Chamber president Tom Donohue has received a light but steady stream of letters from the dissidents. J&J's vice president for governmental affairs, Clifford Holland, sent a terse letter in April, saying, "We would appreciate if statements made by the Chamber would reflect the full range of views, especially those of Chamber members advocating for congressional action." And last month, PG&E CEO Peter Darbee wrote to Donohue: "Extreme rhetoric and obstructionist tactics seem to increasingly reflect the Chamber's public stance on this issue."
Softening Its Stance On Climate Change
The chamber is trying to soften that image of intransigence. At a news conference last week, Donohue thumped the table for emphasis as he said, "We're going to be positive players in this game. It's OK to, you know, come after us because we don't support one bill or another. The bottom line is, look at what we have supported, and look at what we will support going forward."
Pete Altman, climate campaign director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, says that amounts to a radical shift in message.
"As recently as May, they sent a letter to the entire U.S. Congress saying that they don't support any particular approach," Altman said. "Instead, they simply enumerated all the reasons that legislation would be devastating to the U.S. economy."
A Generational Divide At Play?
It's extremely unusual for one of the big Washington advocacy groups to face internal dissent like this.
Patrick Griffin, a longtime Washington advocate who now teaches lobbying at American University, said it's significant that companies would abandon the chamber over a single bill — especially one that, by Griffin's estimate, has at best a 50-50 chance of passing in its current form.
Even with those dicey odds of success, "these organizations are still willing to pull out," Griffin said. He said he thinks businesses such as Apple and Nike see what amounts to a generational divide.
Griffin said the companies see "what the chamber represents and how [chamber lobbyists] do business in Washington, representing a kind of status-quo old style" — an image they want to avoid for themselves.
"Some of the corporate identities are inextricably linked to what's possible through American enterprise, as opposed to, 'Let's just kind of protect our own,' " Griffin said.
Last week, chamber officials rebuffed suggestions that dissident corporations might have an agenda beyond the climate bill.