RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And yesterday was a busy day for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It filed a disclosure report revealing it spent $35 million in the past three months alone to influence Congress and the administration. Also yesterday, a group of hoaxsters impersonated U.S. Chamber officials and announced the Chamber was switching sides and now would be endorsing legislation on climate change. NPR's Peter Overby tells us how the developments are linked.
PETER OVERBY: The press conference was spinning along Monday morning, a fake U.S. Chamber official saying things that would make a real Chamber official choke.
Unidentified Man: Clean coal is a technology that has not only not been proven, it basically doesn't exist.
OVERBY: And then he was interrupted.
Mr. ERIC WOHLSCHLEGEL (United States Chamber of Commerce): OK. This is - I'm Eric Wohlschlegel. I'm with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. This is not an official U.S. Chamber of Commerce event.
OVERBY: Things devolved from there as people in suits argued over who really represented the Chamber. Then again, there's also that lobbying report and its measure of clout. The Chamber almost always tops the list of who spends what among Washington advocacy groups. But just four years ago, it needed almost an entire year to burn through $35 million. This year it needed just July, August and September.
The report doesn't show how much money went into the climate change debate, but the Chamber is deeply involved, and its campaign against democratic initiatives has driven some of its corporate members to protest.
Utilities PG&E, Exelon and PMN Resources went so far as to quit the Chamber, so did Apple. Nike resigned from the Chamber's board. At its own press conference last week, the real Chamber executives dismissed the dissent.
Mr. BRUCE JOSTEN (Chief lobby strategist, Chamber of Commerce): None of the companies that you've asked me about have put forth any specific proposals on our climate policy.
OVERBY: That's Bruce Josten, the Chamber's chief lobby strategist. But some of the defectors dispute that charge, and other corporations still with the Chamber also call its official position too inflexible.
Last spring, Johnson & Johnson asked the Chamber to reflect the views of members that support congressional action on climate change. Critics say the Chamber comes across as opposed to something instead of promoting something. Chamber President Tom Donohue is working to change that image. One instance, his comments at last week's press conference.
Mr. TOM DONOHUE (President, Chamber of Commerce): We're going to be positive players in this game. It's OK to, you know, come after us because we don't support one bill or another. The bottom line is look at what we have supported and look at what we will support going forward.
OVERBY: Even that is a radical shift in message, according to Pete Altman. He directs the climate campaign at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Mr. PETE ALTMAN (Director, Natural Resources Defense Council): And as recently as May, they sent a letter to the entire U.S. Congress saying that they don't support any particular approach. Instead, they simply enumerated all the reasons that legislation would be devastating to the U.S. economy.
OVERBY: It's extremely unusual for a big efficacy group to face internal dissent like this. Former registered lobbyist Patrick Griffin wonders why it's happening over a single bill, especially one that he says has only 50/50 odds at best of passing in its current form.
Dr. PATRICK GRIFFIN (Lobbying, American University; Former Registered Lobbyist): And these organizations are still willing to pull out.
OVERBY: Griffin now teaches lobbying at American University in D.C. He sees what might be a generational divide. This:
Dr. GRIFFIN: What the Chamber represents and how they do business in Washington representing, you know, a kind of status quo old style...
OVERBY: Versus this:
Dr. GRIFFIN: I think some of the corporate identities are, you know, inextricably linked to what's possible through the American enterprise as opposed to, let's just kind of protect our own.
OVERBY: Which raises a question about lobbying that we've heard in other venues, is bigger always better?
Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
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