Chamber of Commerce Icon Makes No Bones About Defending Business

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The walls of Thomas J. Donohue’s office at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce headquarters reveal some things about the man.

A tastefully framed, pretty pastel abstract painted by his wife, Liz, symbolizes a commitment to family. A large-scale photograph of the Grand Teton mountain range in Wyoming shows that even a big city power player like Donohue needs an occasional escape from the urban grind. And then there is the meticulous color drawing of Little Raven, a legendary southern Arapaho Indian chief who transformed himself from a fierce warrior into an exalted Native American peacemaker. What does that represent?

“I share his values of peace and consensus, but if you have to take a scalp once in a while…” Donohue says, grinning and arching his eyebrows for effect.

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Photo: Ian Wagreich / U.S. Chamber of Commerce
Thomas J. Donohue

As the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s CEO and president for the past 18 years, Donohue knows a thing or two about taking political scalps. After all, the chamber spent a whopping $125 million lobbying for pro-business positions in 2014, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That kind of political investment enables the 102-year-old organization to make life uncomfortable for politicians who don’t carry its water in Congress. Indeed, the chamber has forged a reputation as a confrontational — but “ethical” and with “good manners,” as Donohue puts it — force to be reckoned with in Washington.

“We are the best at putting together coalitions of individuals, organizations, state and local chamber associations, companies, to come together to get something done, not only here in Washington but around the country and around the world,” he said.

While Donohue’s aggressive approach to influencing policy has ruffled some feathers at times, it has also helped transform the chamber from a middling, moribund institution into a global powerhouse that speaks for over 3 million businesses.

Today, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s International Affairs Division employs 70 policy experts and lobbyists in Washington and maintains offices in Belgium, Brazil, China, Ghana, India and South Korea. The American Chambers of Commerce Abroad, part of the U.S. Chamber Federation, includes more than 116 American Chambers of Commerce in 103 countries around the world.

“It is fundamental to everything we believe,” Donohue said of the International Affairs Division in an interview from his office at the chamber’s headquarters located just across Lafayette Park from the White House. “It’s one of our gems. We have people of extraordinary skill there and it drives a lot of investment and support for the chamber.”

Before his arrival at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Donohue spent 13 years as president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations, the national organization of the trucking industry. Earlier in his career, he was deputy assistant postmaster general of the United States and vice president of development at Fairfield University in Connecticut.

During his Diplomat interview, Donohue, who commands a nearly $5 million annual salary, outlined his organization’s positions on immigration, climate change and multiple pending international trade deals, vigorously defending each one.

The chamber is pushing hard for implementation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a regional and regulatory investment treaty involving 12 countries throughout the Asia-Pacific region. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is a proposed free-trade agreement between the United States and the 28-member European Union. However, the U.S. president cannot realistically negotiate either without Trade Promotion Authority, which allows Congress to give an up-or-down vote on trade pacts, without any amendments. TPA, or so-called fast-track authority, is considered essential to preventing highly complex trade deals from getting bogged down on the Hill.

Donohue said Trade Promotion Authority is critical to completing landmark agreements with America’s Asia-Pacific and EU allies, who might otherwise be reluctant to go through lengthy, delicate negotiations knowing U.S. lawmakers could tinker with the final product.

“If you don’t have it, you’re not going to be able to close these other deals,” Donohue said. “Who the hell would want to negotiate an agreement that 435 members of the House and 100 members of the Senate are going to edit? Forget it.”

Donohue said Obama didn’t make trade promotion an issue in his first term “because he had to run for office” and worried about losing liberal votes. But the president and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are now on the same page, according to Donohue.

“When he started the next term he was saying, ‘This is what we need to do — let’s go get those trade deals,’” Donohue said. “He’s got to get more vigorous with his own crowd but there are plenty of votes here.”

Obama’s “own crowd” would be Democrats on the left, especially those favored by labor unions who assert that the deals sell American jobs overseas for a fraction of the wages U.S. companies would have to pay at home. Critics of the sweeping trade pacts — two of the biggest in history — also argue that they’ve been hammered out in secret and would erode critical environmental, labor and consumer protections, while enriching corporate interests.

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, said in late February that fast-track trade authority is a bad deal for American workers.

“The undemocratic fast-track process … paves the way for fewer jobs and lower wages,” Trumka said.

The AFL-CIO’s website contends that “the global corporate agenda has infused trade policy with its demands for deregulation, privatization, tax breaks and other financial advantages for big business while shrinking the social safety net in the name of ‘labor flexibility.’”

In a Los Angeles Times op-ed, Trumka argued that fast-track trade deals are murky and need to be opened up to debate.

“If you haven’t heard much about the TPP, that’s part of the problem,” he wrote. “It would be the largest trade deal in history — involving countries stretching from Chile to Japan, representing 792 million people and about 40 percent of the world economy. The Trans-Pacific Partnership won’t deliver jobs or curb China’s power. Yet it’s been devised in secret, with a disproportionate amount of advice coming from corporations and Wall Street.”

As a result, Trumka argues that the benefits of free trade no longer trickle down to the average worker but congregate at the top. He pointed out that the TPP, for instance, gives global corporations the right to bypass national legal systems through an international tribunal, and it does not address the issue of currency manipulation, which undermines the competitiveness of U.S. products.

Asked about criticism that trade deals will sell out American jobs, Donohue scoffed.

“That’s absolute bunk,” he asserted, before conceding that, yes, American manufacturing jobs have been on the wane for years now.

“There are a lot fewer manufacturing jobs,” he said. “Why is that?” Donohue said that in the past decade or so, 45 percent to 50 percent of all U.S. manufacturing jobs “have gone away” — but not to other nations.

“And they’re never coming back!” he said. “They went to a country called productivity: information technology, robotics, process engineering, supply-chain management.”

He dismissed those “who are saying we’re losing jobs to trade.”

“What the heck — we are the most efficient producers in the world,” he said. “How do you get more jobs? By attracting those European companies who want to come here and put their factories here because energy is a quarter of the cost. You get more jobs by getting contracts around the world to sell them stuff. You hire engineers, designers and technical people to put the goods together. You hire people to transport it. That’s the jobs story.”

He characterized Trumka, his longtime public policy opponent, as “a good man” but one who can’t accept that the old way of doing business in America is just that — old.

“They have a very hard time understanding that,” Donohue said of Trumka’s 12.5-million-member labor group.

Donohue suggested that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s message sells better in cities and towns across America than in Washington, D.C., where deeply entrenched special interests on the left have already made up their minds about the deals.

“You can’t sell this thing on facts in Washington because facts are an annoyance, because it interrupts the political convictions,” he argued. “But you can sell it on facts all around America. It’s efficiency, jobs, efficiency, jobs, efficiency, jobs.”

Donohue predicted that Trade Promotion Authority would pass by a wide enough margin to allow some nervous members of Congress to “take a walk” prior to the vote. He also predicted that the Pacific Rim trade agreement would gain approval and pointed out that “it is a lot closer than most people think.”

“When you mention the Pacific agreement to the body politic they think, ‘It’s over there … near Japan or Singapore,’ but it’s all up the coast,” he said of the expansive pact. “It starts down in South America and comes up the Pacific Coast; it’s Mexico, and the United States and Canada.”

TPP, Donohue said, gives us “a great opportunity to influence the rules under which trade with the Pacific is going to be written because if we’re not there, Canada and others will … go over there and make that deal.”

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Photo: AgnosticPreachersKid / Wikimedia Commons
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce was founded in 1912.

Donohue also argued for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

“We need this agreement big time because the European economy is asleep,” Donohue said. “If there is economic growth there, it’s as thin as a piece of paper. Our largest export partner is Europe. If we could get them rocking and rolling again…”

Donohue declared that all of the related jobs projections — whether gains or losses — that experts predict the trade deals will result in are immaterial.

“Forget all the numbers everyone is talking about — a million jobs here and a million jobs there,” he said. “Forget ’em! Just figure out we’re going make lots more stuff, we’re going to send stuff overseas, and we’re going to buy stuff and bring it over here and get good prices for our consumers. We’re going to get advantages to sell our services around the world.

“The bottom line is we’re going to perk up the economy,” he said.

Although the chamber aligns closely with Republicans in Congress on trade, the situation is reversed when you start talking immigration policy. The group has argued vigorously for immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for some 11 million illegal immigrants. Conservative Republicans in Congress, and especially members of the tea party, consistently oppose legislation that allows undocumented workers to “go to the front of the line” ahead of millions immigrants seeking citizenship through appropriate channels.

Donohue has said that an immigration system in which “more than 11 million undocumented immigrants are living and working in our communities in de facto amnesty is indefensible.” The chamber backed a bill in the last Congress that would have allowed undocumented workers to remain in the United States legally if they passed a criminal background check and paid fines.

As he put it in a Nov. 2014 op-ed in the Washington Times: “Welcoming immigrants is good for our economy and our society,” Donohue wrote. “Immigrants do not typically compete with Americans for jobs. The reality is that they create more jobs through entrepreneurship, economic activity and tax revenues.”

In his Diplomat interview, Donohue said America desperately needs a comprehensive immigration bill.

“So many people have lost sight of the fact that that’s how we built this country,” he said, stressing that an expansion of H-1B visas would allow more bright young students who study at American universities to remain in the U.S. after they graduate.

“We want to keep them if they can do the right jobs for us, but we’re training these computer engineers and chemists and then we say go home? C’mon!” he exclaimed.

On the other end of the employment spectrum, low-skilled workers are needed, too.

“We need people in the recreational industry, in seasonal industries like skiing and all that stuff,” Donohue said. “We need people to work in the health care systems. Who is going to take care of all these retirement homes and nursing homes and all these hospitals as the population ages? Why are we kidding ourselves? We need skilled workers in many parts of our economy that will help us create more jobs for people here.”

Donohue, who monitors political calculations on the Hill closely, said Republicans need to get their act together on immigration if they hope to recapture the White House in 2016. And he suggested the chamber will continue to prod them to do so.

“The bottom line is if you’re the Republicans, I don’t think you want to go run for president without some sort of immigration plan,” he said. “We’re hoping and we’re encouraging and we’re pressing. I think we’re going to get there.”

Another issue that has put the chamber in the crosshairs of American political discourse is climate change, yet another subject with global implications. Some high-profile American companies, such as Apple, Intel and Nike, have publicly distanced themselves from the chamber over its war against Obama’s new Environmental Protection Agency rules limiting carbon emissions by U.S. companies. Critics contend the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s official position is that climate change doesn’t exist, ignoring overwhelming scientific proof that man-made carbon emissions are wreaking havoc on the planet’s weather patterns and breaking all kinds of records in recent years. Donohue says the chamber does believe that climate change exists; he just questions what the United States can do about it.

“The bottom line is climate change is a fact,” Donohue told us. “It has always been a fact and has been a fact in all of our history. You remember what was going on out in the plains in the early part of the century — the dust bowls etc. — that was all climate change.

“Sometimes it gets warmer and sometimes it gets colder,” he continued, gesturing toward the snowy Washington winter outside. “I don’t think it’s getting warmer right now. We don’t deny that running engines and using coal or any of that causes a certain amount of warming. But you have to ask yourself a fundamental question: If China or India or Africa doesn’t do some very significant things [to cut carbon emissions], does anybody think that anything we might do is going to change any of that in a measurable way?”

Critics deride Donohue’s defeatist attitude that America shouldn’t do its part to mitigate the effects of climate change — whose resultant weather-pattern disruptions and rising sea levels are projected to cost governments, and ultimately businesses, billions of dollars — simply because other countries are shirking their responsibilities. But Donohue contends that American enterprise is already moving toward carbon-emission reductions on its own.

“We use half the hydrocarbons we used to use to move trucks and cars and drive factories and create electricity than we did to do the same amount of things 15 years ago,” he said, neglecting to mention that government regulations in part contributed to that phenomenon. “We’re doing it and we’ll do more of it. But if you look at what’s coming out of the EPA now, one deal after another assumes that if we do all of that stuff we’re going to save the world. I suggest we ought to look at it in a little broader context and make sure that we save our economy, save our jobs and use a little common sense. There will always be climate change as long as this planet exists.”

As the Diplomat interview came to a close, we asked Donohue what else was on his mind. He thought for a moment, then replied with a rather ominous warning.

“The thing everybody ought to keep in mind is one simple thing,” he said. “If you look at everything that is going on in the world right now, there are more hotspots than we have ever had before and many of them are not managed or controlled by nation-states.

“They are controlled by all types of groups and split-offs and more and more believe that violence is the way to advance their cause,” he said. “Obviously we’re concerned for our national security, obviously concerned for global stability, but I would suggest if you look at all of those things, the reality is there is no way they are all going to cool off, and the more of them that go south, the worse it’s going to be for trade, investment and the economy.”


About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on April 1, 2015