Both sides arguing over Chamber of Commerce pullouts

Supporters and critics of climate change legislation have a new issue to fight over: the significance of recent departures from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Four companies have left the Chamber because they oppose its anti-climate legislation stance, and a fifth, Nike, resigned from the board.

Backers of climate legislation say the departures expose a broader rift within the business group that should weaken the Chamber’s ability to oppose the legislation as it moves to the Senate.

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“If I’m a Hill staffer, when the U.S. Chamber shows up in my office I know they are not speaking for the entire business community,” said Pete Altman, climate campaign director for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Climate backers crowed about Apple’s departure in particular because they said its brand represents innovation and forward thinking to consumers. On Monday, Apple announced it was quitting the group, “effective immediately.”

Daniel Weiss, the director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress, called Apple’s defection “earth-shattering.”

“This is a real black eye for the Chamber, and demonstrates that its radical anti-global warming stance led to real soul-searching among its more

enlightened corporate members.”

In a letter to Apple, Chamber President and CEO Tom Donohue defended his organization’s climate stance.

“It is unfortunate that your company didn’t take the time to understand the Chamber’s position on climate and forfeited the opportunity to advance a 21st-century approach to climate change,” Donohue wrote Apple CEO Steven Jobs.

Opponents of the climate bill say disagreements are inevitable when big trade groups tackle sensitive policy issues like climate change, which would affect businesses differently. The Chamber says it has 3 million members.

“Why have 3 million members stayed?” said Michael McKenna, an energy lobbyist and Republican pollster. “If this were a referendum, who would be winning?”

Frank Maisano of Bracewell & Giuliani, a lobby and law firm that represents refiners and electric utilities, said the departures bear no significance on the broader climate debate but reflect pressure from environmental groups on corporations.

“The environmental community is very good at finding a distraction for talking about serious issues over its costs and the economic challenge of implementing the bill’s goals,” Maisano said.

Chamber supporters note that companies that left the trade group could gain financially under a carbon cap. Exelon, one of three utilities to quit, operates non-emitting nuclear power plants and could see its revenues increase under climate legislation.

Companies like Nike and Apple may not be much affected by a carbon cap but could score a few points with the White House, which has pushed for the climate bill, by publicly criticizing the Chamber on such a high-profile issue, critics charge.

Advocates don’t dispute that the companies that left the Chamber are acting in their own self-interest.

“No company does anything that is not in its self-interest,” said the NRDC’s Altman.

But the fact that the companies chose to quit the Chamber, which has spent $17 million to lobby on dozens of issues that some of the companies probably support, is indicative of the growing importance the climate issue holds, Altman said.

“There are a lot of companies that are more open to legislative or regulatory action that recognize the benefit to their business going forward,” said a lobbyist for one of the companies that have split with the Chamber over climate legislation.

Lobbyists said companies pay $100,000 or more to be on the Chamber’s board. A basic membership is around $40,000.

The Chamber has said it supports investing in technology to reduce carbon dioxide emissions but believes the House climate bill would hurt the economy and cost jobs. It also opposes the Environmental Protection Agency regulating carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act.

The group said it arrives at its policy positions by consensus. It has an energy and environment policy committee responsible for reviewing those issues.

But two lobbyists at companies in the Chamber said they were not aware when the group last voted on the climate issue.

A lobbyist for one of the companies that remains a member but opposes the Chamber’s views on climate legislation said other companies are pressing internally for the trade group to moderate its position. One focus is getting the trade group to back off its insistence that Congress not act until an international agreement to address global warming is in place.

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The push is being led by Chamber members who also belong to the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, a coalition of companies and nonprofit groups.

A spokesman said the Chamber’s board had not voted on its climate policy position since 1990, although its views are occasionally reviewed by its energy and environment panel.

In his letter to Jobs, Donohue again noted the Chamber’s insistence on an international agreement on climate change.

“Climate change is a global problem that requires a global solution,” Donohue wrote.