Challenges await new Chamber president

Challenges await new Chamber president
© Greg Nash

Suzanne Clark is taking over as president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce at a critical time for the powerful business lobby.

The Chamber has historically been a power player in Washington, but in recent years critics have questioned its clout after a number of prominent departures and competition from other trade groups. And the Chamber has taken public fire from President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump conversation with foreign leader part of complaint that led to standoff between intel chief, Congress: report Pelosi: Lewandowski should have been held in contempt 'right then and there' Trump to withdraw FEMA chief nominee: report MORE after clashing with him over trade and other issues, and from lawmakers of both parties.

Trump called in to CNBC on Monday morning after a Chamber executive criticized his tariffs on air.

ADVERTISEMENT

“I’m a member of the U.S. Chamber — maybe I’ll have to rethink that,” Trump said. “The Chamber is probably more for the companies and the people that are members than they are for our country.”

Clark had already begun to transform the business lobby as the top aide to former president and current CEO Tom Donohue. 

Matthew Shay, who sits on the Chamber’s board of directors and is president and CEO of the National Retail Federation, called Clark’s promotion a “great development for the Chamber.”

But K Street watchers said the challenges she faces, which include restoring the group’s clout and reassuring its membership and staff, will be magnified in the new role.

“The transformation she’s spearheading has led to high-level staff turnover and has left the Chamber with few true allies on Capitol Hill,” a source told The Hill. “Those aren’t problems that can be fixed with new carpet, a relaxed dress code, or a new scorecard.” 

“I think it’s a good opportunity for a refresh and a reboot for the Chamber just in general,” an association executive said about Clark taking over.

All eyes will be on Clark as she takes on these challenges. 

Leading the Chamber has always been one of the most coveted jobs in Washington. And Clark, at age 50, will be filling big shoes in taking over for Donohue, who has run the Chamber since 1997 and will stay on for three years as CEO.

The changes were announced after Donohue drew scrutiny over his Chamber perks. The Wall Street Journal reported that Donohue racked up miles on corporate jets provided by the Chamber for both professional and personal trips, including one in May that cost $600,000 — a figure the group disputes.

The Chamber has a broad and powerful roster of member businesses, whose annual dues have helped the group remain the top lobbyist spender in Washington for nearly two decades. But the group is facing new competition from other business groups for resources and influence.

Addressing those controversies will be a test for Clark. 

ADVERTISEMENT

“There’s no reason to not give more to another NAM [National Association of Manufacturers] program or give more to another Business Roundtable program, something you can feel confident your money is not being wasted in this fashion,” a Capitol Hill veteran said.

Eric Wohlschlegel, acting vice president of media and external communications, said the Chamber negotiates rates carefully for travel to get the highest value “given the significant volume of travel that is necessary to conduct official business.”

“The total cost of travel-related expenses for our 500+ employees is $10M per year, which represents approximately 4% of average annual revenue of $250M,” he said. “The Board and Leadership team are comfortable that there is a significant return on investment.”

But there will also be internal blowback, with sources telling The Hill that raises for Chamber staffers were hard to come by.

“Morale has been low for a while, and people inside point to uncertainty about what’s going on,” another source said.

Clark will also need to step out from Donohue’s shadow, sources said, especially with Donohue staying for three years, an arrangement that some found puzzling.

“This is more of an anomaly. In typical situations the CEO is the chief person in charge,” an industry lobbyist said. “It is obvious that Donohue is being eased out via the figurehead route to maintain the optics of a happy marriage.”

A GOP lobbyist also said that Clark has held “a low profile” and questioned if she could bring changes to the Chamber.

“I’ve never seen her,” the lobbyist said. “This person who’s next in line to take over the Chamber of Commerce should be very well-known and respected.”

Shay said Donohue and Clark will continue to be an effective team.

“They are a great team and the Chamber is a strong and effective voice,” Shay said. “I think we should all be very encouraged.

“I think as long as we can keep Tom and Suzanne together, that’s a great thing for the Chamber. I hope we can do that as long as possible,” he added.

Shay said Clark had already been behind changes to the Chamber, pointing to the reemergence of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, the group’s nonprofit arm, and new strategies being used to attract small-business members.

The Chamber has seen high-level turnover in recent years, including the departure of top lobbyist Bruce Josten in 2016 and the entire press team this year. After Josten’s exit, Clark was promoted to lead the team and became first-in-line behind Donohue.

Shay said Clark had since helped attract new talent, including Neil Bradley, executive vice president and chief policy officer, who joined in January 2017, and Michelle Russo, chief communications officer, in April. 

“Suzanne has her fingerprints on many of the transformative changes that have occurred in the past few years,” Shay said. “With this new and expanded role, I think it demonstrates the Chamber’s commitment and confidence in her abilities.”

The biggest challenge for Clark, though, may be across Lafayette Square, at the White House.

The Chamber has historically been seen to lean toward the GOP, but in recent years it has differed from Trump and with conservative Republicans on a host of issues from immigration to trade and tariffs.

On Monday, Myron Brilliant, head of international affairs at the Chamber, on CNBC criticized Trump’s use of tariffs to stop illegal immigration from Mexico as a “weaponization of tariffs” that would hurt the U.S.

That prompted the president to call in to CNBC to lambast the Chamber. 

How effectively Clark, who has been seen as Donohue’s right hand for years, can repair those ties is an open question.

“I think all of us in the business community have recognized that over the past several years, things have changed very dramatically in terms of the political climate and we’ve all had to identify new strategies to engage the Congress and the administration because we’re in this period of disruption,” Shay said.

The Capitol Hill source said the Chamber’s problems went beyond Trump. The source said the Chamber had been “justifying their fall as some sort of move away from Trump but it’s not like they’ve proved their relationship with Democrats, they’ve just spent money on themselves.”

The Chamber will also need to make tough choices in the 2020 elections when it doles out endorsements to congressional candidates, which have been highly coveted in the past.

One source argued that Clark at the helm of the Chamber will help restore its clout.

“Her taking over is the best thing that can happen for the Chamber. The old ways of lobbying and influence in D.C., it’s time to kind of turn the page on those,” an association executive told The Hill.

“Suzanne is going to do a really good job, she’s a change-maker. Really bring some broader thinking to an institution that has had traditionally relied on Republican connections and toed the party line in a way that hasn’t really been helpful for the organization over all.”

--This report was updated at 6:42 a.m.