Chamber makes push extolling ‘free enterprise’

Chamber officials say the new campaign, which will use polling and research, advertising and grassroots campaigning, will tackle the biggest issue facing the country: how to create 20 million new jobs to revitalize the economy and keep pace with population growth.

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“There is going to be no greater issue over the next few years than how to create jobs,” said Brian Gunderson, a former key official in the Bush administration tapped to direct the campaign.

But the new push comes at a bit of an awkward time for the Chamber.

Five companies have quit the group or downgraded their membership in response to the Chamber’s opposition to climate legislation in Congress.

Meanwhile, members of the Silicon Valley Leadership Council, which include Google, Microsoft and Yahoo!, began a print advertising campaign with the Environmental Defense Action Fund and Joint Venture Silicon Valley to urge the Chamber to support climate legislation in Congress.

“No one can look at a Chamber executive and believe they speak for American businesses on climate change,” said David Yarnold, president of the Environmental Defense Action Fund.

“The Chamber is spoon-feeding Congress and the public a tired message that’s stuck in the past.”

Doug Pinkham, president of the Public Affairs Council, said the public policies have grown so complex and far-reaching that businesses are divided on the best way to proceed.

The issues go beyond addressing global warming to how to revitalize the economy, fix the healthcare system and update financial market regulations. Each issue creates winners or losers, and that presents challenges for business associations like the Chamber, which represents a broad swath of industrial sectors that view some of the complex public policy issues differently.

“These are mega-issues where there is a lot of difference of opinion,” Pinkham said.

His group surveyed 130 corporate public-affairs executives in 2009 and found fewer were relying on their business associations to lobby on their behalf. In the 2005 survey, eight out of 10 responded that they relied on their business associations. In the latest survey, six in 10 executives said they used their business associations for name identification, lobbying and other advocacy efforts.

“We attribute it to the increasing difficulty of forging consensus on these mega-issues,” Pinkham said.

Chamber officials say their climate stance reflects the wishes of a vast majority of its membership, and evidence of the group’s continuing influence can be seen in campaigns like the one that will be announced on Wednesday.

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Beyond espousing the benefit of market-oriented policies, the new free enterprise campaign is another showcase of the money that the Chamber can wield in support of its legislative priorities.

While other companies and trade groups are tightening their belts in the recession, the Chamber continues to expand.

When Tom Donohue, the Chamber’s combative president and CEO, took over in 1997, the Chamber’s budget was around $40 million. It will exceed $200 million this year.

So far this year, the Chamber has spent $17.4 million to lobby Congress. That figure does not include the $8.7 million the Chamber’s Institute for Legal Reform has spent to lobby so far this year.

The next biggest lobbying spender is oil giant Exxon Mobil, which has spent $13.6 million so far in 2009, according to lobbying disclosure records.

“We have significantly grown and expanded our membership,” Donohue told reporters at a press conference last week to address the recent defections over climate change. “We continue to grow in spite of the recession and these issues.”

The Chamber was able to attract a big name in Gunderson, a former chief of staff to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, to run the new Campaign for Free Enterprise.

The group also hired two public-relations firms, Purple Strategies and Powell Tate, to help develop the campaign.

Gunderson said the campaign is “a sustained, multiyear effort budgeted at tens of millions of dollars per year” and will lead up to the business group’s 100-year anniversary in 2012. The Chamber executive said the effort will include a national ad campaign, grassroots activity, leadership conferences and extensive polling and opinion research.

“It is precisely because the country is going through such difficult times that a campaign like this is necessary,” Gunderson said.

“It is important that Americans remember the role of free enterprise and its role in creating jobs and opportunity.”