In an ad that used to run on TV, a little girl looks out at the audience while her mother is busy at the kitchen sink and sighs, “My mom washes the dishes before she puts them in the dishwasher. So what does the dishwasher do?” I often ask the same question about the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Carey Smith | Founding Contrarian
That ad came to mind when someone told me that after 24 years, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce had a new CEO. Because if there’s one question to which I’ve never gotten a straight answer, it is: So what does the Chamber of Commerce do?
I’ve been asking for a long time. I’ve even asked it while attending their events — I know they host events and provide opportunities to drink and mingle. And I know that they’re the world’s largest business organization, because they keep reminding us of that. Maybe that’s their job. To be the world’s largest business organization, and keep reminding us of that. I also know that as a non-profit, they raise vast sums of money for themselves, which they pay no taxes on, like a church. But beyond that, what do they do?
I first became really aware of the Chamber of Commerce in high school when I read Babbitt, the satire by Sinclair Lewis about the exercise in conformity that is the life of a middle-class businessman. And I have to say that, based on that book, my first impressions of the august Chamber were not entirely positive. In fact, they were entirely negative. The character George F. Babbitt opined that “Every business man ought to belong to an employers’ association and to the Chamber of Commerce. In union there is strength. So any selfish hog who doesn’t join the Chamber of Commerce ought to be forced to.”
The book was so famous in its day — the Roaring Twenties — that “Babbitt” became a term for someone who conforms to the status quo without thinking. At one point in the tale, Babbitt is elected vice-president of the Booster’s Club, which is described as “a world-force for optimism, manly pleasantry, and good business.” Delete the “manly” and that sounds a lot like the Chamber of Commerce.
Enough of this idle speculation. Let’s consult the fount of all knowledge: Wikipedia tells us that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is the largest lobbying organization in the country, spending tens of millions more than the next-largest, the National Association of Realtors. According to a more reliable source, they spent nearly $82 million in 2020, or more than $150,000 per U.S. legislator, so clearly they exist in order to throw their weight around. Amazingly, however, that amount was $50 million less than they “contributed” in 2010. Gee, I sure hope they haven’t fallen on hard times!
The organization’s own website is a wellspring of information — not to mention entertainment. Its timeline of events starts with the Chamber’s founding in 1912, and through the last century reveals “strong support” for things like the Federal Reserve Act of 1913, the creation of the Federal Trade Commission, a slew of budget acts, as well as the proclamation of “Small Business Week, 1979” by President Jimmy Carter (though Small Business Week had already been observed since 1963) but merely notes in passing the 19th Amendment and the Civil Rights Act. The Chamber “addressed poverty” in 1965, according to the timeline, but there’s no mention of how it did so, only a stock photo of hard-up tenant farmers whose address might as well be Tobacco Road.
With “strong support from the Chamber,” President Lyndon Johnson signed the Revenue and Expenditures Control Act of 1968 to help pay for the Vietnam War. And in 1975, President Gerald Ford addressed the Chamber’s annual meeting where his speech “was interrupted 13 times by vigorous and sustained applause.” Hey, this is some powerful stuff!
Cultural events sneak into the Chamber’s timeline, too: The 1946 release of “It’s a Wonderful Life” is on there, for no apparent reason other than its feel-goodness. Eight years later comes the Chamber’s own instant classic: “It’s Everybody’s Business,” described, and I quote, as “a best-selling animated Technicolor film on the American competitive enterprise system. Made in Hollywood by John Sutherland Productions in cooperation with the DuPont Company, the film quickly won the Freedom Foundation’s top film award.” Gee, I wonder what films it beat out? At the 75th annual meeting in 1987, there was “a premier performance of the song ‘Catch the Spirit of Enterprise’ by soloist Dee Piecuch.” The Chamber’s timeline marks that event in the same large-size font as it noted the sinking of the Titanic.
And in 1997, Thomas J. Donohue became president and CEO of the Chamber. Donohue expanded the Chamber’s lobbying team, “the first step to becoming the most powerful lobbying organization in our nation’s capital,” the timeline noted. Donohue is quoted as saying: “The Chamber’s primary mission is to win legislative victories for business on Capitol Hill. We are substantially increasing our presence on Capitol Hill with lobbyists of outstanding skill and breath.”
Outstanding breath, eh. I guess they hit the mouthwash pretty hard.
But enough with the entertainment timeline. What does the Chamber’s new CEO, Suzanne Clark, claim the organization does?
“We will lead with bold ideas,” she says, “take on the big fights and win the future for our members and our nation.” Ah, great! Those are tough jobs, but somebody’s gotta do them! Good thing she’ll be compensated with a multimillion-dollar salary, because otherwise I can’t imagine where all that money would go that the Chamber collects in dues. Hopefully they’re paying her as much as her male predecessor, who somehow scraped by on $6 million and change a year.
Clark states that her specific goals include expanding work opportunities; launching a National Workforce Initiative that “leverages its extensive, cross-organizational work and years of experience”; leading a Global Forum on Economic Recovery; and continuing efforts at accelerating the recovery and building or rebuilding infrastructure. Well, all of that sounds OK, but how does she propose to do them, other than by buttonholing, glad handing, hosting and donating to the war chests of political hacks?
I know there are chambers of commerce for communities, cities, regions, states and countries, and they’re all a bit different. And I’m sure they all do something beyond hosting schmooze fests and collecting dues. I’m sure, as they say, they have every intention of working together “to build a healthy economy and improve the quality of life in a community.” But I’m still not sure what they do, other than collect dues and promote themselves. They’re like every other fraternal organization: They exist in order to keep themselves going. And they keep themselves going by persuading people that they actually do something, when in fact they do nothing worth doing.
It’s time more small businesses woke up and smelled the coffee at the Chamber-hosted breakfast meeting — save those dues for something that will really help your company, not something that merely purports to.
I’m not a joiner, and I’m not a fan of the status quo. So it’s a good thing that all us “selfish hogs” who don’t want to join aren’t forced to. Take it from me, guys: You wouldn’t want a contrarian like me around, anyway.