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When you hear “US Chamber of Commerce,” what comes to mind? Some unknowingly relegate the group to the category of “random government organization.” For others, the name conjures up a local community group devoted to defending small businesses and mom-and-pop shops. And while it’s possible that the US Chamber of Commerce — which did not respond to requests to comment for this article — would gladly accept either of these assumptions, neither are exactly accurate.
“It’s surprising for many people, even politically engaged people, to learn what the Chamber of Commerce does,” explains Dan Dudis, the director of Chamber Watch at Public Citizen, a nonprofit watchdog organization founded by Ralph Nader.
As the nation’s largest lobbying group, the US Chamber — which accepts funding from companies like Gap Inc. and Target — is one of Public Citizen’s biggest fish to fry. The Chamber and its affiliates spent close to $104 million on lobbying in 2016, “More than any other corporation or industry association by a whopping margin,” according to the Washington Post and the Center for Responsive Politics.
“This is the premier voice for corporate power in Washington,” Dudis says.
Today, the Chamber often leans toward supporting and funding the agenda and policies of the GOP. Critics, like Dudis, are quick to point out their efforts to end regulations around climate change, fight equal pay policies, and loosen tobacco marketing restrictions. But they didn’t always serve such a partisan purpose.
Founded in 1912, the US Chamber of Commerce initially formed to oppose “an increasingly powerful federal government and the labor movement,” according to a 2010 Mother Jones article, which describes the group’s history of taking a “moderate, nonpartisan approach” to business legislations efforts such as child labor and worker’s comp.
Even as recently as the ’90s, when President Bill Clinton prepared to roll out a health care plan, the Chamber’s board “unanimously backed universal coverage funded by employer mandates.” But a few years after, faced with strong anti-Clinton efforts and rising opposition from powerful Republicans, including John Boehner (R-Ohio), the US Chamber of Commerce pivoted its approach from nonpartisan to what critics say is an approach favoring the right wing.
The change in attitude can be traced to Tom Donohue, 79, a former CEO of the American Trucking Association, who took over as Chamber president in 1997. When he took over the lobbying group, Donohue said he wanted “to build the biggest gorilla in this town — the most aggressive and vigorous business advocate our nation has ever seen." And even his critics will agree he has been very successful in doing so.
Deferring to the goals of its large corporate backers, Donohue vowed to get the Chamber involved in “many important political battles” in Washington. And climate was one of the first things on his list. One of the Chamber’s first major anti-climate efforts came within a year of Donohue’s appointment, when the Chamber claimed the Kyoto Protocol was, “bad for the American economy, American workers, and American families.”
Not every large corporation was happy with the shift. Over the years, intense public pressure forced many corporations to take a public stance on issues like climate change, equal pay, and sustainability — the very issues the Chamber has doggedly attacked.
Heidi Welsh is the executive director of the Sustainable Investments Institute, which conducts impartial research for large institutional investors. She says when it comes to investing its shareholder’s dollars into corporations, her organization's clients pay close attention to issues of social responsibility.
One focus of those big investment groups? “Corporate political spending on lobbying and elections,” says Welsh. Meaning, groups investing their shareholder’s dollars into corporations want to know how exactly if and how those corporations are influencing the policies of Washington. “Climate change is a big issue on this,” says Welsh. “Over 100-plus companies have left the Chamber, citing its position on climate.”
Apple and Pacific Gas & Electric stopped supporting the Chamber in 2009 after the the group’s attempts to downplay global warming. Starbucks, Unilever, Costco, and General Mills also quit the US Chamber of Commerce, citing its extreme position on climate change and large spending on far-right political candidates.
CVS left in 2015, though for other reasons. The US Chamber of Commerce focuses lobbying efforts on easing restrictions on tobacco sales. This stance was in direct conflict with the pharmacy giant’s vow to remove cigarettes from its stores in 2014.
Nevertheless, the Chamber has continued banging the drum of climate-change denial. The US Chamber of Commerce puts money behind both lobbying efforts and elections, and in the 2010 midterm elections — oft cited as the beginning of the end of democratic power in Washington — 94 percent of the Chamber's political donations went to climate-change-denying candidates.
Which is why it’s so surprising to learn that some major retailers, including Gap Inc. and Disney — which have publicly pledged to increase sustainability, lower emissions, work toward equal pay and nondiscrimination, and increase antismoking efforts — are still funding a powerful lobbying group that specifically fights those initiatives.
“The Chamber has been a huge opponent of environmental protection and [proponent of] inaction on climate change,” says Dudis, pointing to a what he calls a “sham” study paid for by the US Chamber of Commerce that said implementing the Paris Agreement would lose jobs. Though the study was widely criticized, it was the document Trump cited during his announcement that the US was leaving the Paris agreement.
“The Chamber fights clean air and clean water regulations, laws to protect nature and wildlife, to prevent drilling and mining. You name the environmental issue and they are opposing the protections,” says Dudis.
Gap in particular “has made multiple pledges to sustainability and fighting climate change,” explains Dudis. On its website, the company lists its commitment to equal pay: “Our mission is to promote equality and provide real advancement opportunities for all,” and climate change: “Climate change affects people and communities everywhere, and we’re working to reduce the absolute, global greenhouse gas emissions of our facilities by 50 percent by 2020.” In a statement, Gap, Inc. explains that it is not a member of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, saying "We only participate in their international programming. Our funding and our participation do not in any way contribute to the Chamber's domestic positions on climate."
Same goes for Disney. Though CEO Robert Iger quit Trump’s advisory council over the decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement, his company still funds the Chamber.
Gap and Disney (along with Pepsi) are now under pressure to pull funding from and cut all ties with the US Chamber of Commerce. Public Citizen and 60 other organizations such as Greenpeace, Credo Action, League of Conservation Voters, Rainforest Action network, and the Sierra Club signed a letter urging the Walt Disney Company to “cease funding the United States Chamber of Commerce.”
“It just doesn't make sense for Gap to be funding that group,” Dudis says. “Either they really care about these issues, in which case, they need to stop funding the Chamber. Or, hopefully not, but they are just trying to convince the consumer they are are a socially responsible company when really they aren’t.”
That’s the crux of what the US Chamber of Commerce, in effect, does best. Donohue himself has said that he serves as a fixer of sorts for corporate interests. "We’re the reinsurance industry for individual industry associations and state chambers of commerce and people of that nature,” he once said. “I want to give [members] all the deniability they need."
(In a statement, Gap Inc. responded to Public Citizen saying they are not members of the US Chamber of Commerce and emphasized their commitment to sustainability and equal pay. Corporations do not have be official members of the Chamber to give funds to the group or its affiliates.)
Other retail corporations associated with the Chamber include Target, Johnson & Johnson, Home Depot, Facebook, and Lowes.
(Spokespersons for Target, Facebook, and Lowes confirmed their association with the US Chamber of Commerce. Johnson & Johnson and Home Depot did not reply to Racked’s request for comment.)
To protect those members seeking the assurance Donohue promises to provide, the Chamber does not reveal its members publicly. It also creates special accounts for companies that that wish to avoid taking a controversial public stand on issues, “allowing them to anonymously funnel money to the Chamber, which then advocated on their behalf,” according to Mother Jones. And in 2001, the Wall Street Journal named Walmart, Daimler Chrysler, and Merck as secret clients. Despite leaving the Chamber’s board in 2009, Nike remains a member, saying “we fundamentally disagree” with the group’s position on climate.
“Critics of corporate political spending are particularly unhappy about the role these industry groups play,” explains Welsh. “Because there is no required disclosure, these groups can spend a heck of a lot of money and nobody is required to say what they’ve given money or how much.”
“It's a big pot of cash,” Welsh says. “We don't know where it comes from, but we know where it gets spent.”
But groups like Public Citizen follow the money and work to expose the origins of some of the dark cash. One study Public Citizen conducted, which looked at the US Chamber of Commerce’s tax filings, found that of the various contributors to the Chamber — including companies, rich individuals, and politically active nonprofits — “essentially 74 groups” counted for 60 percent of the Chamber’s funding. This small number of extremely wealthy donors isn’t exactly in line with the mom-and-pop, small-town images the group uses in its election-season commercials.
“The US Chamber of Commerce is a group that speaks for a very small number of giant corporations,” says Dudis. He says the largest amount the US Chamber of Commerce reported receiving is from 2016 when, says Dudis, “Dow Chemical gave a minimum of $1.8 million.”
“Our goal,” Dudis adds, “is to expose the Chamber the way the Koch brothers have been exposed.”
When it comes to individual consumers, knowledge around what their dollars are going can certainly help shape corporate decision-making. Just take the boycott of Nordstrom for carrying Ivanka Trump’s line or the pressure on advertisers to stop airing ads during Fox’s The O’Reilly Factor after sexual harassment allegations were brought against the host.
Ultimately, however, it’s the large-scale investors, who want returns on their client’s investments, that will be biggest influences. The good news? Sustainability, as it turns out, is good for business.
“The question for business in regard to sustainability is not a touchy-feeling one. It’s a business one” says Welsh. “From an investment perspective, it's about saving money and then being around for the long term.”
That is, Welsh says, the core of the investor argument. “It’s very much that climate change mitigation and emissions reduction makes you a better-run business.”
To that end, investors have pressured businesses to source more renewable energy and to find ways to be more energy efficient. “It’s saved them money,” says Welsh of companies like Walmart that have taken steps to reduce fuel usage on trucks and use more alternative energy sources.
“These are not flaky arguments from tree huggers about energy,” Welsh emphasizes. “It’s good business.”
Editor: Meredith Haggerty
Fact checker: Laura Bullard
Update: This post has been updated with a statement from Gap, Inc.