This article originally provided by
February 5, 2005
A Quiet Revolution In Business Lobbying
Chamber of Commerce Helps Bush Agenda
By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
After brief pleasantries on the phone the other day, Thomas J. Donohue got
down to business with a top health insurance executive. "We're in a new year and
a new time," Donohue said smoothly. "Can we put you on the list and get your
The executive said yes, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was $100,000 richer.
So, in effect, was President Bush's push to rein in trial lawyers and lower
The chamber is at the forefront of a quiet revolution in business lobbying.
Corporate groups now raise big money to advance broad issues, largely to help
the Republican president enact his fiscal agenda. That's a long step away from
what trade associations traditionally did: concentrate on narrow concerns while
shunning partisan spats.
The big money has become commonplace in day-to-day lobbying, and few people
are more responsible for that than the outspoken Donohue. When he became the
group's president in 1997, the chamber took in only about $600,000 from its
largest corporate members. Last year, collections for that category, called the
President's Advisory Group, totaled $90 million.
That's a major reason Bush will rely on him and the chamber this year. "When
the White House looks for the go-to people on business issues," said fellow Bush
enthusiast Dirk Van Dongen of the National Association of
Wholesaler-Distributors (NAW), "the chamber is among the very first groups that
it talks to."
Speaking privately, several trade association heads say their members often
embrace Bush initiatives and are glad the chamber and other big groups help
organize their support for those issues. But some also worry that the more
controversial the president's policies become, the harder it will be for them to
maintain their unalloyed enthusiasm. And if they abandon the president on big
issues, they risk losing administration backing for parochial matters critical
to their industries.
Critics see a broader problem. They say the superior funding by corporate
sources is inevitably unfair. "An average citizen speaks only at a whisper in
Washington," said Celia Viggo Wexler, a vice president of citizens' advocacy
group Common Cause. "But the chamber and other big business associations, thanks
to their clout and fundraising, speak with a megaphone."
"The Chamber of Commerce represents the people who have an overwhelming share
of the resources to deploy," said Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the
Democratic-leaning Center for American Progress. That kind of imbalance, he
said, "can overwhelm the voices on the other side."
The chamber eagerly deploys every weapon in the lobbying arsenal and can be
counted on by the president to get things done. It has demonstrated its success
repeatedly in the past four years on issues as disparate as loosening ergonomics
standards and creating health-savings accounts.
Its lobbyists blanket Capitol Hill. Its Web sites and telemarketers stir up
voters back home. It donates generously to political campaigns coffers, and it
bankrolls multimillion-dollar ad campaigns for the politicians and policies it
Few organizations can muster that much firepower, except perhaps the most
prominent groups the chamber will go head-to-head against this year -- the trial
lawyers' lobby on legal reform issues and AARP on Social Security private
The chamber's clout is a turnaround for the nation's largest business
organization. When Donohue arrived, it was losing money and was widely
distrusted by Washington's corporate community for having backed President Bill
Clinton's Democratic health care plan.
Donohue turned the chamber into a money machine by radically remaking it. He
jettisoned its resource-draining business magazine and television operation,
both of which had been the pride of his predecessor, Richard L. Lesher. He also
spent freely to invigorate the organization's policy and lobbying arms. The
lobbying staff that had numbered only two is now at least 18 strong.
During the first two years of Donohue's rebuilding drive, the chamber's
budget remained in deficit. Then, as corporate chieftains gained confidence in
the rejiggered organization, donations began to pick up. Now, the chamber is a
In the first half of last year (the latest figures available), the chamber
ranked first among all organizations in lobbying expenditures, at $30 million.
The chamber also contributed more than $4 million to the November Fund, a group
that attacked Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry for choosing a
former trial lawyer, John Edwards, as his running mate. Today, the chamber is
solidly in the black, its $150 million annual budget triple what it was when
Donohue took over. It also is staunchly Republican in most of its legislative
positions and played a pivotal role in cutting the tax on dividends and
approving free-trade pacts, among many other Bush priorities. Whenever the
president or his people called, the chamber assembled coalitions of like-minded
groups and contacted its 3 million member firms to step up political pressure
and donate lobbying-related funds.
This year, it will lead the effort to pass the president's first significant
initiative -- a bill to limit class-action lawsuits against big corporations. A
senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because
he is not authorized to speak to the press said the chamber's Institute for
Legal Reform will be indispensable to Bush's strategy on the issue.
The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday approved a class-action lawsuit
bill much to the chamber's liking, and the full Senate is scheduled to begin
debate on the legislation Monday.
The institute expects to spend nearly $40 million this year, roughly equal to
last year's total -- an amount that Donald A. "Dan" Danner, senior vice
president of the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), calls
"eye-popping." Donohue will raise the most of the money.
Other business groups will also ally themselves with Bush. The chamber is
part of the so-called Gang of Six trade associations that are considered the
president's most reliable supporters. They include the Business Roundtable, the
National Association of Manufacturers, the National Restaurant Association, NFIB
But thanks to his fundraising prowess, the pugnacious Donohue stands out.
"When it comes to raising money, Tom is about as skilled as anyone can get,"
said Red Cavaney, president of the American Petroleum Institute.
That's vital expertise, given the ever-rising costs of lobbying. Modern
legislative battles run in the millions of dollars because of the pricey and
now-routine targeting of swing voters through telemarketing and television
advertising. Groups that collect the most money invariably have an advantage.
For the 2004 elections, the chamber dispersed 215 political operatives to 31
states, mailed 3.7 million letters to targeted voters, made 5.6 million phone
calls and sent 30 million e-mails to persuade pro-business voters to go to the
The results were impressive. The Institute for Legal Reform won 15 of the 16
state Supreme Court and attorney general races it targeted. The chamber's
candidates also prevailed in 21 of the 28 House seats and in seven of the nine
Senate races it engaged significantly. It was especially active with commercials
in the successful campaign to unseat former Senate Minority Leader Thomas A.
These efforts have made the chamber many friends in the Bush administration,
and Donohue, whose annual salary is more than $1.6 million, isn't shy about
using them. He told a new $100,000 chamber member, Lurita Doan, chief executive
of New Technology Management Inc., that he could arrange a meeting for her with
the U.S. customs and border protection commissioner. "I'll get you in there,"
Donohue said. "We'll get you a meeting." Donohue works morning to night to, as
he puts it, "separate some people from their cash." He said he annually makes
200 fundraising visits in person and an additional 150 over the telephone to
large corporate donors whose dues are $100,000 or more.
He travels so often for that purpose that the chamber provides him a
chauffeured Lincoln Town Car for in-town use and leases him a jet for longer
trips. "You can't visit as many people as I do and do it commercial," Donohue
said. He leaves the lobbying mostly to the staff that his fundraising pays for.
Donohue, at age 66 a veteran association executive, has reduced begging for
contributions to four intense steps. First, he said, "you have to have a product
to sell." Second, "you have to get in to see the right people." Third, "you have
to make the ask." And last: "You follow up, follow up, follow up" until the
money is delivered.
The technique has yielded a remarkable bounty, but Donohue didn't amass it
all himself. The chamber has professional fundraisers and a dozen other people
who prepare briefing papers on the companies that Donohue wants to solicit. The
chamber's officers are also expected to pitch in.
"If you work here, you're a fundraiser," Donohue said. "You don't raise this
kind of money unless you have everybody in the game."
Officers receive bonuses and paid weekends away based on the amount they
raise or help to raise. To keep up the incentive to collect, their tallies are
published in reports that come out every month.
The chamber has hired the Swiss Guard of paid consultants from both political
parties. Several showed up at a recent dinner hosted by Donohue at the chamber,
including Al From, chief executive of the Democratic Leadership Council; Thomas
F. "Mack" McLarty, who was White House chief of staff in the Clinton
administration; and Scott W. Reed, who was Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign
Donohue is careful to say, "We're not an arm of the Republican Party. We need
to engage the moderate Democrats." He also doesn't conceal his displeasure that
Bush might want to overhaul the federal income tax. With the effective corporate
tax rate so low, reshuffling the code could produce "a brawl" among his members,
he reasoned, and increase levies on some of them.
Donohue also opposes increased securities regulation -- from the Bush
administration or any other source -- and does so with typical ferocity. The
chamber is even suing the Securities and Exchange Commission. Donohue has called
investigations by New York state Attorney General Eliot L. Spitzer "the most
egregious and unacceptable form of intimidation that we have seen in this
country in modern time."
"Donohue takes a hard-nosed approach," said Douglas G. Pinkham, president of
the Public Affairs Council, a group that teaches executives about official
Washington. "Some people don't like his style, but he's not trying to win style
points. He's just trying to win."
Sometimes Donohue even clashes with fellow association heads. Former Michigan
governor John Engler, the new president of the National Association of
Manufacturers, has stepped onto his turf by raising money to help confirm Bush's
judicial nominees and to restrain trial lawyers at the state level -- activities
that come close to those of the chamber's Institute for Legal Reform.
"I respect Engler's problem," Donohue said about Engler's nascent drive.
"He's taken over a membership that's divided. He has to put some points on the
The chamber will probably handle most of the anti-trial-lawyer lobbying. A
few years ago, a study sponsored by the Business Roundtable recommended that
corporate interests fortify their tort reform efforts by consolidating them in
one place. The chamber was chosen.
Other groups will quarterback lobbying campaigns that advocate other Bush
priorities. The Business Roundtable will head up national advertising to promote
private accounts as part of Social Security. The National Association of
Manufacturers will spearhead inside-the-Beltway lobbying on the same topic. But
Donohue will also be a factor.
"If there's a fight on Social Security, Donohue and the chamber will be in
the middle of it," said Steven C. Anderson, president of the National Restaurant
Association. The reason: Donohue knows where to find the funding.
Some chief executives keep a sign on their desks that says, a la Harry
Truman, "The Buck Stops Here." Donohue's desk holds a sign with a telling
variation. It reads: "Show Me The Money."