I. Meet America's business cheerleaders.
People tend to view chambers of commerce in the same colors as the Rotary Club or the Knights of Columbus: eager do-gooders lending a helpful hand in the name of economy and country. It's a largely accurate assessment — at least on the local level.
In Davenport, Iowa, it means hosting music festivals like River Roots Live, a "quality of life initiative" that brings 30,000 people downtown each year, says Jennifer Walker of the Quad Cities chamber.
In Largo, Florida, it means introducing the small and struggling to the guys with all the money. "They want to meet heads of the hospitals, heads of the banks, so they can generate business from one another," says Tom Morrissette, the president of that city's chamber.
In Pasadena, California, it means pushing a business agenda without the sectarian shrieking of Washington. "We can still go for a beer after work and talk about our kids," says chamber president Paul Little.
These are sainted duties. Local chambers chiefly represent small businesses, which collectively make for the nation's largest and most stable employer. After all, the florist and the restaurateur are more likely to sponsor a softball team than ship their jobs to Indonesia. Neither is prone to demanding public welfare under threat of bolting for Tennessee. The local chambers are their cheerleaders, providing mercantile expertise, all with a cheerful disposition built to illuminate the possible.
But that reputation is being smeared by their national umbrella group, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — a nonprofit group that sounds innocuous but, since it began supporting extreme right-wing ideas and funding controversial candidates, has quietly become the baddest bully in Washington. And its behavior is causing dozens of smaller, dues-paying chambers — and some of America's most prominent companies — to flee its ranks.
II. Now meet their weird Uncle Ed, who's ruining the family name.
Think of the U.S. Chamber as your crazy Uncle Ed. He spent too much time listening to talk radio, developed a raging victim complex, and came to believe the country was being destroyed by sloth and moochery. So he formed a lobbying group to defend the one true antidote: free enterprise.
Over the past century, the U.S. Chamber has sounded a lot like Ed when he's surrounded by a battalion of vanquished Budweisers.
The national organization was founded in 1912 to bring a greater business voice to Washington. It was always conservative. It was against America's rush to stop Hitler in World War II. It called Franklin Roosevelt's remedies for the Great Depression, among them social security, an attempt to "Sovietize" America. After the war, it cheered on Joe McCarthy's hunt for imaginary Commies.
More recently, the U.S. Chamber fought against civil rights, the Americans With Disabilities Act, and safeguards for gays and lesbians. At one point, it even championed the need to discriminate against pregnant employees.
The Chamber is against workplace safety, regulating pollution, paid family leave, and banning chemicals that cause birth defects.
The group's guiding principle: If it might help regular people, the Chamber considers it heresy. Free enterprise should be absolutely free, this logic goes, even if it turns the country into Rwanda with nicer Burger Kings. Anything less is an outrage.
"They've been on the wrong side of every issue in U.S. history," says Auden Schendler, a vice president at Aspen Skiing Company who pushed his city's chamber to leave the national group.
Still, until 1997, the U.S. Chamber enjoyed bipartisan respect in Washington. It was viewed as the official voice of business, capable of playing amiably with others. But it was also losing members, money, and effectiveness.
That year, Tom Donohue became its new CEO. If the old Chamber was crazy Ed, Donohue's version would be Sean Hannity on steroids and meth, with a monster war chest and a prime-time audience.
III. The Big Gorilla gets a pocketful of money.
Donohue, the former head of a trucking trade group, instinctively understood Washington's unofficial law — namely, if you dole out millions of dollars to punctuate each sentence, you suddenly don't sound that weird anymore.
So he traveled the country, grubbing donations from the largest companies. His goal, as he wrote at the time, was to "build the biggest gorilla in this town."
And he did.
In 1997, the year Donohue arrived, the Chamber spent $17 million on lobbying. Today that figure approaches $140 million annually, three times the purse of the next-biggest congressional manipulator, the National Association of Realtors.
"They're kind of the poster child for how big business and the superrich are able to control the agenda in Washington," says Jake Parent, who runs the U.S. Chamber Watch website at Public Citizen, a D.C. consumer group with 250,000 members.
Officially, the Chamber still fancies itself the voice of American business, a town crier advocating for small government, less regulation, and the miracle cure of free enterprise. "We passionately believe it's time to stop apologizing for the one system in our society that actually works," Donohue said in his annual "State of American Business" speech in 2012.