THOMAS J. DONOHUE is not one for sweet talk. No sooner had he been named president of the United States Chamber of Commerce in 1997 than he promised to “make life miserable” for Bill Archer, a powerful member of Congress. In the next breath, he suggested that John Sweeney, the union leader, needed to be punched in the mouth.
Nor does Mr. Donohue show much deference to the current president of the United States. The chamber’s headquarters sit across Lafayette Square from the White House, and in May 2010, with unemployment near 10 percent, Mr. Donohue festooned the building’s grand, Corinthian-columned facade with four banners spelling J-O-B-S in red, white and blue block letters, each 23 feet, 4 inches high.
Three years later, the banners are still up. During a recent interview in his office, an expansive suite with black walnut paneling, Mr. Donohue offered a blunt explanation for why he hung the sign facing President Obama’s home. “So he’d have to look at it every day,” he said, lowering his voice to a theatrical growl.
That the head of the chamber would openly relish needling the president of the United States speaks to the wholesale transformation that this 101-year-old trade association has undergone on Mr. Donohue’s very aggressive watch.
Over the last 16 years, Mr. Donohue has used his considerable talent for fund-raising to build the once-struggling chamber into a free-enterprise research outfit, Supreme Court advocacy group and lobbying powerhouse. The chamber’s lobbying operation alone spent $136 million last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics; the next-biggest spender, the National Association of Realtors, spent less than a third of that.
At 74, with his Kennedyesque mop of white hair and a Brooklyn accent, Mr. Donohue comes off as part street fighter, part showman and part head of state. He zips around town in a chauffeured Lincoln and flies around the globe in leased private jets. His salary, $4.9 million in 2011, makes him the second-highest-paid trade association chief in Washington, after the head of the Edison Electric Institute, according to CEO Update, a trade magazine.
“He’s got a little theater in him,” Billy Tauzin, the former Louisiana congressman and a onetime amateur actor, says of Mr. Donohue.
“He’s like the Energizer Bunny,” said John W. Bachmann, senior partner at Edward Jones and the past chairman and current treasurer of the chamber’s board, calling Mr. Donohue’s salary a “bargain.”
Yet, while increasing the group’s influence, Mr. Donohue has also plunged the business lobby into partisan politics. That move has infuriated many Democrats, made some local chambers uneasy and produced an embarrassing flop in the last Congressional elections. The chamber spent millions in an unsuccessful bid to wrest the Senate from Democrats; of 12 chamber-backed Republicans, nine lost.
“They got their clock cleaned,” said Mr. Tauzin, an outside adviser to Mr. Donohue. “It was a bold idea. Bold ideas either succeed boldly or fail dismally. In this case, I think Tom would tell you it was a dismal result.”
Not one to back down, Mr. Donohue has ordered his political team to “figure out what happened” and to try harder in 2014, said Scott Reed, his senior political adviser. But publicly, Mr. Donohue is changing the subject. He has always been a man of big ambitions, and his latest is to secure an immigration overhaul, long a priority for business. A deal he cut with Richard L. Trumka, president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., on a new visa program for low-skilled workers helped produce a bill that passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in May.
Mr. Donohue rarely mentions President Obama by name, and in casual conversation allows that he had a better relationship with another Democrat, Bill Clinton. (“You get in a big fight with him one morning, and then two days later you’d be over there for a drink.”) He refers to Mr. Obama as “the president across the street” — a phrase that Mr. Reed says is “not a disrespectful thing,” but a reflection of Mr. Donohue’s position.
“That’s the institution speaking,” he said.
Immigration is one issue, at least, on which the chamber and the Obama administration might come together. Businesses of all stripes want the immigration system improved. High-tech companies like Facebook want access to skilled foreign workers. Large-scale farms want to hire Mexican and other migrants. Small businesses want a stronger electronic employment verification system, to shift the burden of making sure workers are legal to the government and away from employers.
It is now up to Mr. Donohue to deliver. And while he waves off talk of retirement — “If you see me in a box with flowers around it, I’m only thinking about retiring” — there is no question that an immigration bill could be a legacy item, a capstone to his long career.
WHILE big, wealthy companies help keep the chamber afloat — “We have to raise $5 million a week to run this place,” Mr. Donohue says — advocating for small business is perhaps more popular with the public. So one morning in April, Mr. Donohue could be found holding court at America’s Small Business Summit, the chamber’s annual gathering for small-business owners, who come to network and lobby their lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Like all things Donohue-related, the meeting was a slick production, with hefty corporate support and Washington-insider speakers like Michael V. Hayden, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and Bob Woodward, the Washington Post journalist. In the exhibit hall, representatives of T-Mobile and FedEx handed out trinkets.
Mr. Donohue used his keynote address to exhort the audience to “defend and advance a free-enterprise system” whenever it “comes under attack” and to give politicians in Washington — the words “Republican” and “Democrat” never pass his lips — a piece of their minds.
“It’s about time,” he thundered, “that our leaders in Washington start making the tough decisions that we pay them to make!”
The talk was business-lobby boilerplate, if delivered with dramatic flair. Yet Mr. Donohue is a surprising missionary for the free-market message in at least one way: he has little experience working in for-profit businesses.
Born in Brooklyn, he grew up, largely, in Rockville Centre, N.Y., where his parents moved amid the post-World War II housing boom. His father was a factory manager for the American Can Company; his mother was frail and sickly from a childhood illness. As a boy, Mr. Donohue suffered rheumatic fever, and spent most of the second grade at home. Reading was a challenge; he says he is “a little dyslexic.”
He came by his free-market views as a teenager, through hard work, he said. He delivered meat for a butcher shop, mowed lawns, worked for a pharmacy and ferried bottles of liquor to Wall Street. He put himself through St. John’s University in Queens and later got an M.B.A. at Adelphi University while working for the Boy Scouts.
He went on to pursue a seemingly unrelated string of jobs, working for a disability-rights advocacy group, as a university fund-raiser and at the Postal Service. There, he tangled with unions and eventually rose to deputy assistant postmaster general — a job that took him to the capital, where he began his ascent as a Washington player.
In 1984, after a stint running membership and grass-roots operations for the chamber, Mr. Donohue landed his first big Washington lobbying job, as president and chief executive of the American Trucking Associations, which had been hobbled by a string of legislative defeats. Colleagues remember him as endlessly energetic, especially when it came to raising money.
“We called him the White Tornado,” said Lana Batts, a former association lobbyist. Ms. Batts recalled how they would fly into a city, round up local trucking executives for dinner, then hit them up for cash. “People would walk out of that room saying: ‘I intended not to give him any money. How did I end up giving him all that?’ ”
WHEN Mr. Donohue was hired at the chamber in 1997, it was in desperate need of a fix-it man. The organization was bleeding money and members, and losing political influence over its embrace of parts of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s health care bill. Other, more focused business lobbies, like the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Federation of Independent Business, were making incursions onto the chamber’s turf.
“The chamber, probably in a perfect world, which I’ve never been in, would have wanted to hire somebody of more stature, but they had serious challenges, and that’s why they hired me,” Mr. Donohue said. “My first objective here was to save the place as we knew it.”
He traveled the country, seeking to bolster membership and the budget, which has since quintupled, his aides say. And he vowed to make trouble for traditional adversaries like trial lawyers, environmentalists and union leaders.
Today, Mr. Donohue presides over a $250-million-a-year operation, where roughly 500 employees — a small army of lobbyists, legislative analysts, economists, lawyers and communications gurus — devote themselves to carrying out his vision for a more pro-business government.
Since Mr. Obama took office, Mr. Donohue’s army has mobilized against the president’s health care overhaul, his financial regulatory overhaul, his energy policy and his new consumer protection agency — though it did help to pass Mr. Obama’s financial stimulus package. Often, the chamber is more aggressive than the individual companies in its membership; pharmaceutical companies and insurers, for instance, took a more nuanced stand on the health bill.
“The Donohue chamber is in full-time attack mode,” said Robert Weissman, who runs the liberal advocacy group Public Citizen. “From their point of view they’ve been very aggressive in advancing the interests of their constituents. From our point of view, they have very aggressively expanded the corporate grip over policy making in Washington, D.C.”
The chamber’s foray into politics has perhaps been Mr. Donohue’s most aggressive strategy. Taking full advantage of the Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court, which freed corporations and labor unions to spend unlimited sums on political advertisements, the chamber — which filed an amicus brief in the case — plunged headlong into the 2012 Congressional races.
Records show that the chamber spent at least $35 million on the races. It backed two Democrats and 38 Republicans in House races, but no Democrats and 12 Republicans for the Senate, where some veterans found themselves on the other end of chamber attack ads.
“Tom Donohue is a partisan Republican who plays big-money, nasty politics,” said Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio, who is still irked at a chamber ad showing him looking nefarious with a 5 o’clock shadow. To which Mr. Donohue, a registered Independent, retorted, “If I had a shot at getting rid of him tomorrow, I’d do it again!”
The chamber also tried unsuccessfully to oust Senator Claire McCaskill, a centrist Democrat from Missouri, despite the fact that Mr. Donohue awarded her a Spirit of Enterprise award in 2009 for her “support of pro-business issues.” Her seat seemed vulnerable; Republicans hoped they could take it and gain control of the Senate.
“Anybody in the phone book could have beaten Claire McCaskill!” Mr. Donohue declared in the interview, neglecting to mention that her opponent, Todd Akin — who made impolitic remarks about “legitimate rape” — did not.
Not long ago, Ms. McCaskill collared Mr. Donohue in a Capitol corridor to tweak him about his poor return on investment in the election. “He turned kind of red,” she recalled, “and said, ‘Don’t take it personal.’ “
Mr. Reed, Mr. Donohue’s senior political adviser, argues that, despite the losses, the chamber’s big spending during the election has jangled the nerves of Democrats who “want to know what they have to do to get right with the chamber.” And by engaging thousands of local chambers in campaigns, he said, Mr. Donohue has built the chamber into “a national brand.”
But at least one of those local chambers — in Kansas City, Mo., where Ms. McCaskill has support from prominent business leaders, including some Republicans — quit the national organization in protest over the attacks on her.
“What was disheartening,” said Jim Heeter, the local chamber president, “was that so much money was being spent in a very negative way.”
THE election results “reignited something” in Mr. Donohue, said Robert W. Goldfarb, a management consultant, who calls Mr. Donohue “my dearest friend.” The two men met 50 years ago when, fresh out of college, Mr. Donohue sought Mr. Goldfarb’s career advice. Mr. Goldfarb remembers the future chamber chief as someone lacking self-confidence, but burning with ambition.
“The overriding drive for Tom,” Mr. Goldfarb said, “is to be limitless, to fly.”
Privately, though, Mr. Donohue has conceded that he has limits; he has told his board that his close aides will tell him when to retire.
“Tom recognizes that there will be a time, and that he probably won’t recognize when that time comes,” Mr. Bachmann, the former board chairman, said. “So he’s got people that he absolutely trusts.”
For now, though, he is seizing what opportunities he can. Early this year, one presented itself: Senators Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican, and Charles E. Schumer, the New York Democrat, invited Mr. Donohue and Mr. Trumka of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. to Capitol Hill. A group of four Democrats and four Republicans — the so-called Gang of Eight — were in negotiations on an immigration bill, and the senators wanted the union leader and the chamber involved.
Mr. Donohue, who worked to pass a bill in 2007, the last time it came up in Washington, jumped in with vigor, hoping to win a new temporary visa program that would ease the way for businesses to hire foreign workers. If any deal was to work, he would have to strike a compromise with labor, which wants protections for low-skilled foreign workers and assurances that companies will hire local residents first, while business wants flexibility to bring in foreigners to fill open jobs.
Over the last weekend in March, after a week when the Gang of Eight talks nearly fell apart, Mr. Schumer got Mr. Donohue and Mr. Trumka on the phone, and they signed off on an accord that let the bill go forward. (Neither the union leader nor the chamber chief would discuss the specifics of their talk.)
“Tom really rode herd, and was very, very personally involved,” Mr. Graham said, adding, “He found a way to get everybody to yes.”
With the bill soon to be debated on the Senate floor — amid grumbling from Silicon Valley that it does not go far enough — and the House working on its own measure, Mr. Donohue will be busy in the coming months.
He also has personal milestones ahead: his 50-year college reunion (he does not plan to attend), his 50th wedding anniversary (he and his wife, Liz, are planning a big party) and his 75th birthday (Aug. 12).
Wrapping up his speech at the Small Business Summit, he spoke of the immigration legislation, vowing, “We’re going to get that bill.” But he wasn’t quite finished; he wanted to say a few more words.
“Free enterprise isn’t perfect — none of us are,” he told his audience. “But it provides one thing that most other systems don’t, and that’s opportunity.” He added: “It allows you to take a responsible risk. Sometimes you take a risk and you fail. O.K. get up off the floor and do it again. The beauty of our system is that you can keep trying.”
It was the expected paean to the American system from Washington’s warrior for free enterprise. But it also seemed that Mr. Donohue might have been talking about himself.GeneralWisconsin WaveShut the ChamberWisconsin WaveWisconsin WaveShut the Chamber