Is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce losing its grip on Washington?

When news broke yesterday that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was shopping for a "respected economist" they could pay $50,000 to produce a study opposing health care reform, it likely wasn't a surprise to readers of Facing South.This past March, Facing South was one of the first media outlets to break the story about another Chamber-backed study -- this one an attack on the Employee Free Choice Act, a key labor reform bill. Through a front group called the Alliance to Save Main Street Jobs, the Chamber funded a report by "noted economist" Anne Layne-Farrar which claimed the bill would cause 600,000 people to lose their jobs.

As Facing South documented, dozens of media outlets -- including CBS, Fox and MSNBC -- covered Layne-Farrar's study but failed to mention the powerful anti-union business interests backing it. (They also didn't mention another key point which Facing South was first to raise -- that the study was based on the experience of just three Canadian provinces over three decades ago.)

The fact that this week, the Chamber's efforts to buy favorable research generated so much attention -- and even some retrospective coverage of their role in the EFCA debate -- likely has to do with the growing awareness and controversy over the business group's key role in pushing a conservative policy agenda in Washington.

But is the controversy enough to diminish the Chamber's power as a mover for Republican and right-wing politics?

The Chamber calls itself "the voice of business," but that label has been put into question with the recent defection of Apple, Nike and other major companies, mostly over the Chamber's vociferous opposition to cap-and-trade climate legislation.

These defections also revealed that the Chamber was inflating -- or at least being misleading about -- the number of companies it actually represents. While the Chamber's website states it represents "3 million" businesses, they recently admitted the actual number of dues-paying member companies is a tenth of that -- around 360,000.

And as Josh Harkinson in Mother Jones noted, many of those business simply join the Chamber because they want to be listed in their business directory, a helpful marketing move.

But the Chamber does much more with the business dues it collects. Since CEO and president Thomas J. Donohue assumed power in 1997, the Chamber has increasingly viewed itself as a leading player in the conservative movement, openly aligning with Republicans and ensuring pro-corporate policies are a centerpiece of the broader right-wing political agenda.

The Chamber has always been key to conservative politics. Indeed, when corporate lawyer Lewis F. Powell drafted "The Powell Manifesto" in 1971 -- a founding document of the New Right which called for the creation of conservative think tanks and other institutions -- he addressed it to his friend Eugene Sydnor, Jr., then the director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Powell knew powerful corporations would be the driving force behind a new conservative politics.

Today, with over 300 staff and an annual budget well over $150 million, the Chamber is one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington. As of late October, they had already spent $65 million this year lobbying against the key pieces of the Democratic policy agenda, especially health reform, cap-and-trade and the Employee Free Choice Act.

But while the Chamber's openly partisan and staunchly conservative views worked during the Bush years, it's put the group at odds with many of the moderate and liberal-leaning companies in its orbit. The recent high-profile defections couldn't have come at a worse time for the Chamber, as it battles what it views as major threats to the reign of a corporate-centered agenda.

For the first time in decades, the Chamber's claim to represent American business is being questioned. Each company exit seems to open space for more criticism: MoveOn claims that over 5,300 medical professionals have signed a petition urging the American Medical Association to sever ties with the Chamber.

The Chamber is even being openly mocked, as when the agit prop jokesters The Yes Men held a fake press conference last month in which they impersonated Chamber officials and announced bogus changes in Chamber policy:
The fake Chamber press release distributed to reporters Monday looked like an authentic document from the Chamber, with a logo and contact information for follow-up stories [...]

[T]he press release said that the Chamber is implementing an "immediate moratorium on lobbying and publicity work opposing climate legislation" -- and suggested that high-profile defections from Apple, Nike PGandE and other companies played a role in the decision.
The Chamber has deep enough pockets and has ensconced itself fully enough into Washington's political culture to shake off such irritating episodes.

But at this volatile political moment, the Chamber's leaders must be rattled that so many are questioning the long-held assumption that what's good for the Chamber -- or at least the companies still in their corner -- is necessarily what's good for business, much less the rest of the country.