Will the Real Voice of Small Business Please Stand Up?

Author: Stacy Mitchell
Publication Date: 2 November 2010
Location Originally Published: Yes Magazine


By the time the polls close, the U. S. Chamber of Commerce will have spent an estimated $75 million on television ads and other "voter education" efforts aimed at defeating Democrats and giving Republicans control of the House and Senate. It's a record-setting expenditure: more than double what the Chamber spent in 2008 and more than any non-candidate has ever spent on an election.

The Chamber, which describes itself as "the voice of business," insists that its political activities serve the interests of American business in the broadest sense. The group claims to represent 3 million businesses and says that 96 percent of these are small, defined as having fewer than 100 employees. That's an impressive figure—one that the Chamber invariably touts in press releases and testimony, and relies on to lend considerable weight and legitimacy to its lobbying on Capitol Hill.

But it is a spurious claim. The Chamber arrives at this 3-million figure by counting all of the businesses that are members of state and local chambers. These local groups, however, are independent organizations. Many pay a few hundreds dollars a year to affiliate with the U. S. Chamber in order to take advantage of discounts and other programs. But they have no say over the national group's political activities, its lobbying or endorsements—and many, we are now learning, in fact disagree with its views.

The U. S. Chamber's actual membership is only about 300,000 businesses. And while small businesses are a prominent part of its public image, the Chamber's boardroom is dominated by large corporations. Its 125-member board includes representatives of just two local chambers and only a handful of small businesses. The rest comprise a veritable who's who of the country's most powerful corporations: Pfizer, Alcoa, JP Morgan Chase, and so on.

As skewed as its board is, the Chamber's budget is even more so. In 2008, one-third of the $147 million the group raised came from just 19 companies. (Exactly which companies is unknown. While U. S. law requires the Chamber to list amounts given on its annual tax return, it is not obligated to disclose their names.)