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The Year the US Chamber Became a Joke, And Why We're Not Laughing

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This morning, the President of the US Chamber of Commerce, Tom Donohue, will stand up in front of a bank of microphones, captains of industries, and leaders from the purportedly 300,000-member organization of which he serves as titular head. In his annual "State of American Business" address, Donohue will likely announce that the State of the US Chamber itself is strong.

He will be wrong.

2009 will go down as the year the US Chamber fell from its perch as the representative voice of business and became a national joke. From the discovery that the group had been inflating their membership numbers approximately 900 percent to an exodus of some of their largest and influential members, including PG&E, Apple and Nike, to major legislative losses on their biggest and most hard-fought battles, 2009 has been, in the words of a favorite children's book, a "terrible, horrible, no good, very bad" year for the Chamber. Let's review the high-/lowlights.

1. The Chamber is forced to admit that their membership is not 3 million, as previously stated, but approximately 300,000. Due to the dogged reporting of Mother Jones investigative correspondent Josh Harkinson, the Chamber is forced to revise its published membership numbers from 3 million to just 300,000--a self-inflation rate of no less than 900 percent and a total membership that's a tiny fraction of the 29.6 million businesses that operate in the country. In addition (or subtraction), the Chamber lost some of its most high-profile members this year due to its extreme position on climate change, causing local Chamber leaders as well as corporations like Apple to say, "The US Chamber doesn't speak for me."

2. IRS forms report nearly 40 percent of Chamber contributions come from just 25 members. The Chamber filed IRS forms showing its 25 largest contributors provided a staggering $54 million of its $140 million in total 2008 contributions. The top two contributors alone provided $24 million. Why is this important? Because once again, the Chamber is painting a picture of broad membership when the reality is, they're reliant on the money and whims of a few.

3. Despite spending colossal sums lobbying for an anti-working family agenda, the Chamber loses major legislative battles on healthcare and financial reform. The Chamber's power as a lobbying force stems from the outrageous sums of money they're willing and able to spend to advance policies that can only be described as anti-working people. In the first nine months of 2009 alone, the Chamber spent a record-setting $65 million on lobbying--three times as much as the next largest spender, oil giant Exxon Mobil. Yet despite their efforts, they failed to accomplish any significant legislative wins. In November alone, the Chamber spent at least $24 million on ads and public relations to defeat health insurance reform - the very bill poised to hit the President's desk within the month. They spent $2 million to defeat the President's Consumer Financial Protection Agency, which passed the House last year. Additional financial reforms opposed by the Chamber appear to have a similar fate: passage. Perhaps if the Chamber reformed its own agenda and started pushing for legislation that actually helps instead of hurts working people, they might have more success.

4. Tom Donohue's name becomes further synonymous with shady business deals and general embarrassment. Receiving less press attention than the fake press conference "punk-ing" the Chamber suffered at the hands of the Yes Men, but more personally damaging for Donohue, were recent stories linking the Chamber president to settlement deals at Sunrise Senior Living, where Donohue served as a longtime director, including one for $13.5 million. Sunrise settled two other suits alleging that insiders, including Donohue, received backdated stock options and traded shares improperly, requiring the company to institute a series of governance reforms. And Sunrise remains the target of a two-year investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Not the best position for the so-called leader of American business to be in.

And of course, those were just the highlights. To read more about the Chamber's "terrible, horrible, no good, very bad" year, read Change to Win's report.

So what's next for the newly-chastened Chamber? In the coming year, we'll see the Chamber throw all the muscle they have left into the biggest battle of all: labor law reform. Chamber Vice President Randy Johnson has said that it will be "Armageddon" if the Employee Free Choice Act passes, a statement they've underscored through millions in ad spending before legislation has even hit the Senate floor. They'll also continue their $100 million "Campaign for Free Enterprise," a thinly-veiled and deep-pocketed shot at President Obama's economic agenda, and make a last-ditch effort to kill healthcare reform. $100 million. It's not pocket-change.

The State of the Chamber may be a joke, but we're not laughing, and neither should you.