03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Incredible Shrinking U.S. Chamber of Commerce

It turns out that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce only has 300,000 members, not the “more than 3 million” it claimed to represent just a day ago, before Mother Jones magazine questioned the business lobby’s inflated numbers.

The Chamber has now “quietly backed off” the 3 million figure, according to Mother Jones, which reports today that:

Since 1997, the "3 million" figure has appeared in print more than 200 times in newspapers and broadcast outlets of all sizes…

By contrast, the 300,000 figure, which appears nowhere on the Chamber's website, is cited in the news database Lexis-Nexis only three times -- infrequently enough to be mistaken for a typo.”

Getting called out for such “semantic tricks” is the least of the Chamber’s problems these days.

The Huffington Post reports that MacAndrews & Forbes Holdings, the holding company owned by multi-billionaire Ronald Perelman, is debating whether to leave the U.S. Chamber of Commerce over its extreme climate position and recent “Scopes Monkey Trial” challenge to the EPA over the Clean Air Act.

The Chamber has been losing members – real members out of its actual 300,000 or less total – at a rate of several each week lately.  Apple was the most recent in a string of high-profile defections including Exelon, Pacific Gas & Electric, PNM Resources, Nike, Levi Strauss & Co. and PSEG

The exodus has weakened the Chamber’s credibility on the Hill at a critical time when business leaders are descending on Washington to lobby Congress to pass strong climate and energy legislation. Pete Altman at NRDC’s Switchboard blog has compiled a running tally of editorials from around the country criticizing the Chamber’s intransigence on climate change in a post titled “The U.S. Chamber’s Continuing Climate Credibility Crisis.”

Even the White House has joined in the Chamber pile-on.  Energy Secretary Steven Chu told reporters “it's wonderful” to see so many companies quit the Chamber of Commerce. "I think companies like that -- Exelon and others -- are saying we have recognized the reality," Chu said. "They are saying we can't be a party to this denial and foot-dragging."

"I would encourage the Chamber of Commerce to realize the economic opportunity that the United States can lead in a new industrial revolution," Chu said.

Pressure is now building on the Chamber from multiple fronts.

Green Century Capital Management, which manages environmentally friendly mutual funds, and a group of investment-focused organizations sent letters this week to 14 corporations urging them to end their Chamber memberships (and in many cases their memberships with the National Association of Manufacturers).  Read the letters over at EnviroKnow.

The Silicon Valley Leadership Council, which represents around 300 IT and tech employers including Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo!, joined with the Environmental Defense Action Fund and Joint Venture Silicon Valley Network on a print ad campaign this week urging the Chamber to change its ways and support climate legislation in Congress.

“Silicon Valley is ready to lead the world in the next great technological revolution: clean energy,” the ad states. “That’s why we’ve been so disappointed by the opposition of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to clean energy legislation now moving through Congress.”

A coalition of progressive activists and attorneys just launched this week as well, knocking not only the Chamber’s climate position, but also its role as “an extremist political organization dedicated to corrupting American democracy by elevating the profits of big corporations over the well being of the citizens they serve.”  The campaign is calling on Congress to investigate the Chamber on multiple fronts, including fraud, false tax filings and campaign finance violations.

But the Chamber’s backwards stance on climate change remains the focus of most critics at present.  Mother Jones magazine has done several excellent pieces recently explaining why, including an article titled “Inside the Chamber of Carbon.” The piece notes that the Chamber’s “aggressively narrow climate policy” may violate its own policy-making process since the full board of directors never formally voted on the matter, as is customarily required by the Chamber’s procedures.  Chamber CEO Tom Donohue rebuts that argument, telling reporters that the board voted on climate issues, but they were part of a ‘consent calendar’ where members voted on several items at once.  (Sounds sort of like a Congressional rider or earmark where pet projects are tacked onto larger bills and never face sunshine or scrutiny by the full membership.)

A Chamber insider told E&E news that the real thrust of the Chamber’s campaign to derail the House-passed energy and climate bill came from some of the group’s major donors, who worked behind the scenes to influence Chamber activities through staff-level contact.  "Companies with the largest contributions tend to hold more sway with chamber staff on setting final policy positions," according to the anonymous official.

Despite the growing pressure to change its ways, the Chamber remains stuck in the past, clinging to its diminishing role as ‘the voice of business,’ while many major U.S. businesses leave it behind to forge ahead on climate and energy solutions.

"If people want to attack us, bring em on," Chamber CEO Tom Donohue told reporters.

"We are not changing where we are," he said. "We've thought long and hard about what is important here and we are not going anywhere."

How long will that intransigence hold up?  Will the Chamber remain relevant, or become the laughing stock of Washington, representing a dying breed of angry fossil-fuel-dependent industrialists?