(Originally published on november 18, 2009)
BACK in the 1990s when Thomas J. Donohue was president of the American Trucking Associations, a subordinate raised a question at a staff meeting.
Some of the association’s members, the aide said, wondered whether it was really necessary for the group’s president to fly on a private jet.
Mr. Donohue, a scrappy Irish-American born in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island, turned to his chief of staff and asked how many seats his jet had. “Well, eight, sir,” the aide said. “Tomorrow morning I want you to call and get a 12-seater,” Mr. Donohue shot back. The subject never came up again.
Mr. Donohue, 71, now the president of the United States Chamber of Commerce, still flies on private jets and enjoys a chauffeur-driven car in addition to his $3 million annual salary.
And his legendary pugnacity has not faded. It was on display again this fall as he and the chamber found themselves in a maelstrom over climate change policy after a number of member companies noisily resigned in protest over the chamber’s hostile stance on climate legislation. A wave of criticism arose from Congress, the White House, environmental organizations and some businesses that accused the chamber and its president of a reactionary pursuit of anti-environmental policies.
Mr. Donohue was not cowed. “Bring ’em on,” he growled at a briefing for reporters last month.
As president of the nation’s largest and oldest business association, Mr. Donohue is no stranger to sharp policy debates. During his 12-year tenure, the chamber has been outspoken on trade, tort reform, union organizing rights, financial regulation and health care. Mr. Donohue has hired an army of lobbyists and has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising, advocacy and political campaigns to make sure its voice is heard. The chamber represents its generally conservative membership of 300,000 companies and local business groups on these issues without much public protest.
But climate change poses a different sort of challenge for Mr. Donohue. Many of the chamber’s big-business members are deeply split on the issue, with some standing to profit from an economy moving away from reliance on fossil fuels, while others could see devastating increases in costs.
The companies that resigned this fall — Apple, Mohawk Paper and the utilities Pacific Gas and Electric, Exelon and PNM Resources — cited the chamber’s climate policy as counterproductive. All said that some form of greenhouse gas regulation or legislation was coming and that they did not want to pay dues to an organization that appeared to be standing in its way.
R. Bruce Josten, the chamber’s chief lobbyist, dismissed the defectors as self-interested publicity seekers. He said some wanted to save their chamber dues money (as much as $50,000 a year in some cases) and planned to cut their own deals with lawmakers to benefit their bottom lines.
“We try to work with them and they vilify us. Fine,” Mr. Josten said. “It doesn’t faze Tom. It doesn’t faze me, either.”
Mr. Donohue’s challenge is to try to placate the diverse membership of the chamber while working with Congress to blunt the impact of any carbon-control regime. The chamber didn’t help its cause this summer when one of its senior policy analysts, William L. Kovacs, called for the Environmental Protection Agency to hold a new “Scopes monkey trial” on the science of global warming, reprising the famous 1925 confrontation over the scientific basis of evolution.
Mr. Donohue disavowed the comment and had strong words for Mr. Kovacs in private. But he has not relented in his opposition to E.P.A. regulation of emissions of greenhouse gases that are contributing to global warming. And he is wary of any climate change legislation that he says will “eliminate jobs and badly damage the economy.”
Mr. Donohue would not agree to an interview for this article but provided written answers by e-mail to a number of questions about the chamber’s climate change position. He said that he did not set out to pick a fight with the Obama administration over climate-altering emissions (“Absolutely not!”), and that he was trying to work with the administration to focus on the long-term challenge of climate change.
The chamber strongly opposed the global warming bill sponsored by Representatives Henry A. Waxman of California and Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, both Democrats, that narrowly passed the House in June. The chamber said the bill was a job-killer and a regulatory nightmare and classified the vote as a crucial issue in determining whom it would support or oppose in Congressional elections next year.
Mr. Donohue said that the chamber had a series of basic principles by which it would judge any legislation on climate change. It supports new nuclear plants, increased domestic oil and gas exploration, research on capturing and storing carbon dioxide emissions, new efficiency measures and provisions to control cost increases associated with emissions reductions. It has not expressed support for any proposals to impose a mandatory cap on greenhouse gas emissions.
“The business community, as well as a growing number of legislators from both parties, has serious problems with current legislative proposals,” Mr. Donohue wrote in his e-mail message. “In the last analysis, probably at the end of the process, we hope to find a bill that achieves the objectives of dealing with carbon emissions, without extraneous and expensive add-ons such as a trade war with the developing world or the creation of thousands of new regulations, mandates and bureaucracies.”
His opponents say that his words and actions are self-defeating and have served only to marginalize the chamber in one of the most important environmental and economic debates of the time.
“Mr. Donohue’s chamber has damaged its credibility, reputation and influence with self-inflicted wounds caused by its extremist stance on climate policy, its obfuscating double-talk and Mr. Donohue’s own attacks on corporate members that have distanced themselves from the chamber’s position,” said Peter Altman, climate campaign director at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The chamber appears to have realized it must express support for federal climate legislation in order to remain politically relevant, but it has yet to demonstrate a real commitment to the goal of making serious policy that would result in aggressive reductions in global warming pollution.”
It may be premature, however, to declare the chamber irrelevant to the debate. Since arriving at the chamber in 1997, Mr. Donohue has added more than 100,000 members and quadrupled the group’s annual budget to $200 million.
Its spending on lobbying has exploded to more than $90 million last year, from less than $20 million a year. The chamber has spent $65 million on lobbying so far this year, including some $35 million in the third quarter alone.
In 1997, the chamber had 2 lobbyists working full-time on Capitol Hill; it now has 18. In its most recent lobbying disclosure filing, the chamber named 98 inside lobbyists and 90 others working on its behalf from outside firms.
Mr. Donohue alluded to the firepower that his battalions of lobbyists and big budgets bring at a meeting at the chamber’s headquarters on Nov. 9. Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, had just spoken of the administration’s Race to the Top education competition, which will distribute more than $4 billion to school districts around the country.
Mr. Donohue nodded appreciatively.
“People seem to listen to you more,” he said, “when you’ve got a bagful of cash.”
WHILE a relative handful of members have left the chamber and some have taken issue with the group’s climate change policies, many remain loyal to the chamber and to its leader.
Gene Barr, the vice president for government affairs at the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, a member of the national chamber, said that Mr. Donohue had been successful in increasing the size and influence of the national organization. In the process, he may have broken a few eggs, Mr. Barr added.
“Look, Tom’s a very interesting guy, a feisty Irishman, and he comes across that way,” he said.
John Podesta, former chief of staff in the Clinton White House and now head of the liberal Center for American Progress, has tangled with Mr. Donohue on a number of issues and has found common cause with him on others, like education and worker training.
“It’s fair to say that we disagree on most things,” Mr. Podesta said. “But he took a kind of sleepy organization and turned it into one of the most aggressive lobbying groups in town.”
On climate change, however, Mr. Podesta said that Mr. Donohue’s views put him at odds with some important members.
“When you run out on the battlefield and your troops are turning their horses in a different direction, you quickly find yourself in pretty big trouble,” Mr. Podesta said.
Mr. Donohue said that his recent notoriety had been challenging, but not as difficult as his early years at the chamber when he was trying to rebuild its membership and finances.
And, no, he has given no thought to stepping down.
“I recently told my wife,” he wrote in his e-mail message, “that if you see me lying in a box with flowers all around, that means I’m only thinking about retiring.”
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