Chamber of Commerce Gives Wall Street, Polluters What They Pay For

The nation is days away from getting the ultimate lowdown on business for 2016. And when the annual "State of American Business" speech is delivered by the Godfather of corporate lobbying on Jan. 14, it will be a predictable homily if ever there was one.

Thomas J. Donohue, president of the powerful U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is sure to talk about issues such as regulation (which is bad) and litigation (which is good when he and his members do it, bad when you and I do it).

If time permits, he may even touch on coal and nuclear energy (both good). Or a contentious proposal to require stockbrokers to put their clients' interests ahead of their own (very, very bad).

It takes some fancy footwork to espouse the sometimes conflicting philosophies the Chamber promotes, but North America's most feared, honored and ridiculed corporate poobahs are masters at pushing their agenda with a straight face.

We are talking, of course, of the Washington, D.C.-based national lobbying group, and not of the local chambers scattered across the country that don't always agree with the national group's extreme positions.

The Chamber's press office did not respond to emailed questions other than to say it would not provide an advance copy of Donohue's speech.

I don't mean to pick on the U.S. Chamber because its antics can sometimes be pretty entertaining.

In December, the group published a list of 2015's most ridiculous lawsuits. I have to admit the one about the California woman who used a photo from the Internet as evidence she'd received second-degree coffee burns at a McDonald's drive-through was totally over the top.

There was also the New York woman whose wrist was broken when her 8-year-old nephew leaped into her arms when she arrived at his Connecticut birthday party. Sadly, the tyke's embrace knocked Auntie to the floor, resulting in two surgeries. She sued the kid for $127,000.

Those examples from the Chamber's FacesofLawsuitAbuse project are pretty darn funny -- or outrageous, depending on your mood and political leanings. But American business's most ferocious lobbyist is deadly serious when it comes to wagging its finger about the menace of frivolous lawsuits.

Never mind that Donohue boasted in last year's speech that the Chamber itself would be "extremely busy in the courts," using legal action to defend the rights of business and stop what he considers government abuse.

The Chamber's Litigation Center filed a record number of briefs in 2014, he said, predicting it would best that record in 2015.

You might think the group would restrict itself to sotto voce conversation about the amount of paper it files in state and federal courthouses considering its passionate stance against people who clog up the judicial system.

But we are talking about the rich and the powerful here, and people who revolve in the Chamber's orbit have a knack for stating the implausible with authority.

Or perhaps we are meant to believe the Chamber, in its righteousness, would never take a court's time on a frivolous matter.

Either way, there are curious examples of the Chamber demanding one system of justice for its members and another for the general public.

It has, for instance, slammed the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for sometimes pursuing violators of securities law in the comfort of its in-house courts rather than try the cases in the public courts.

There are "substantial differences" in the processes used in the two forums, the Chamber's Center for Capital Markets Competitiveness wrote on its Web site in July. Those differences can impede the pursuit of "a full, fair and impartial adjudication," according to the Chamber.

A fix suggested by the Chamber is for the SEC to offer enforcement targets the option of having a case heard in federal district court, which sounds fair enough to me.

But giving choices to litigants appears only to be fair game when it suits the Chamber and its members, who, no doubt, see advantages to using the courts if the SEC is after them, but avoiding the courts if their customers sue.

I can see why they might. Arbitrators in consumer and investor cases stand to get repeat business from Chamber members and thus might be more sympathetic to corporate defendants than an SEC judge would be.

Little surprise that when consumer advocates suggest the public should have the option of going to court when they file complaints -- instead of being compelled by a company to arbitrate -- the Chamber suddenly thinks it's fine to forego the due process that court provides.

Arbitration gives consumers "a fairer, simpler, cheaper and faster" way to resolve disputes than litigation, wrote Chamber official Lisa Rickard in a Nov. 14 letter to the New York Times.

The Chamber can be vicious. It has attacked consumer advocacy organizations such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, sued agencies such as the Environment Protection Agency and lobbied for the tobacco industry in the face of smoking's dire health consequences.

Yet, it also makes a trifling effort to show itself as a good corporate citizen.

Listed dead last among 11 items on its 2016 agenda is "Business for Good," a category that includes the Chamber's Center for Women in Business

The Center's efforts include a series of YouTube videos, several of which espouse the financial and other benefits that come to companies that beef up the number of women on their boards of directors. In one, the former CEO of Frontier Communications (FTR) says boards make better decisions when they have "different genders in the room."

At Frontier, 41% of board members are women. At the Chamber, 13% are. The Chamber was smart to keep all that stuff about women and corporate boards at the bottom of the agenda list, where readers would be less likely to explore and perhaps raise questions.

It takes a public relations beating from time to time, when high-profile companies including CVS Health  (CVS) , Apple  (AAPL) or Nike  (NKE) sever their relationships based on the Chamber's odious positions on tobacco or the environment.

Mostly, though, the Chamber gathers up boatloads of money from old-economy polluters and financial firms desperate to bully their ways out of following reasonable rules. Too often, its benefactors get exactly the results they'd hoped for.

Which is why when Donohue steps to the lectern at the Chamber's Washington headquarters to map out his plan for the year ahead, he won't be saying much that we don't already know about his agenda. At heart -- if only it had one -- the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is an operation that keeps some of the worst of yesterday's Corporate America alive.
 

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