Inside the Chamber’s Free Enterprise Campaign

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National Journal has a fantastic new piece out today about the Chamber of Commerce’s advocacy campaign to “defend and advance America’s free enterprise values.” Turns out, it’s not going quite as well as they hoped, and is even drawing criticism from some conservatives for being more about raising money for the Chamber than it is about promoting an agenda in a meaningful way.

But that’s not to say it hasn’t been effective. The Chamber is expected to report $250 million in revenues last year, a 25 percent increase over 2008. It spent $123 million on lobbying last year, nearly twice as much as it did in 2008. The group has launched a campaign to gather 1 million voter contacts that it can use to advance its electoral and policy agenda. And its non-profit wing, the National Chamber Foundation, is planning an initiative to get educational information about “the free enterprise system” into elementary and high schools across the country (nothing like starting early!).

Among the more interesting elements of the article: apparently the Chamber approached some major corporations, like ExxonMobil, about funneling more money into the group’s advocacy work, but met hostility. Instead, Chamber president Tom Donohue is turning increasingly to very wealthy individuals for support:

When he launched the campaign last spring and summer, Donohue initially talked to ExxonMobil and some other longtime financial angels about committing new funds to the project, according to lobby sources. Executives at two companies that he approached let it be known that they had already made big contributions to other chamber efforts, such as the Institute for 21st Century Energy. (Chamber officials dispute that these corporations gave them the cold shoulder.)

The executives suggested that Donohue consider approaching wealthy individuals in such sectors as energy, financial services, and high tech, according to a lobbyist close to the chamber.

Donohue has done just that. For the first time in chamber officials’ memory, he is seeking to finance most of the campaign through donors outside of the corporate community. He has been searching out individuals, who, as Donohue puts it, “have done exceedingly well in a free enterprise system” and asking them for contributions as high as six and seven figures. “These are people who said, ‘Hey, I never could’ve done this anywhere else in the world, and it’s probably a good idea to remind everybody how it worked.’ “

The piece is worth a read.

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