Recent high-profile departures from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce over its position on climate change may be more than a short-term, public-relations hit for the lobbying powerhouse, according to supporters of cap-and-trade legislation.
Climate bill backers say the chamber's turmoil will reshape the debate on Capitol Hill.
The schism in the business community, they say, is an indication that the fight over climate legislation won't be a repeat of the time-worn faceoff between greens and big business, a fight in which environmentalists are outgunned in money and influence.
Environmentalists are working hard to portray the new battle lines as mainstream political thinking, which now has greens allied with some major businesses, versus entrenched special interests controlled by oil companies and climate change skeptics.
"One of the key impacts of this is that it's becoming clear that the Chamber of Commerce is no longer the voice of business on climate. They can no longer claim that mantle," said Peter Altman, climate campaign director at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
And when Democratic Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Barbara Boxer of California rolled out their climate bill yesterday, there were pointed references to chamber departures as signs that the fight is trending in their direction.
"We feel with Exelon quitting the Chamber of Commerce, because they feel they're anti-business, we have momentum on our side in terms of the businesses that are coming out to support us," Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Boxer said.
Exelon Corp. is among three utilities -- the others being Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and PNM Resources Inc. -- that left the chamber due to its position on climate change. Nike Inc. said yesterday that it was resigning its position on the chamber's board of directors but will continue to use its membership in the group.
Some of those companies have specifically taken issue with comments made this summer by William Kovacs, the chamber's vice president for environment, technology and regulatory affairs. Kovacs said the science of global warming should face a public trial similar to the Scopes Monkey Trial, a choice of words chamber officials now say they regret.
But chamber officials are also downplaying the political significance of companies' recent departures, saying that a split in the business community on major legislation is not unusual, particularly in a coalition that represents as wide a range of interests as the chamber.
"Of any organization you can imagine in the entire town, we are the only one that does not have homogeneous membership," said Bruce Josten, the chamber's executive vice president for government affairs. "Our job is to try to find points of consensus out of that diversity.
"I feel pretty good day to day if 75 percent of our members agree with something."
Josten added that Kerry and Boxer have a long way to go to convince even many within their caucus to vote for the climate bill. "Three companies leaving the chamber is not momentum for Senator Boxer," Josten said.
Chamber's financial clout
To be sure, the departures will do little to weaken the chamber's significant political muscle.
The chamber says it has 3 million members, and the loss of a few will likely mean little for a group that has already spent $26 million on lobbying this year -- twice as much as any other single entity in Washington.
But Altman and other environmentalists argue that even as the chamber remains financially healthy, the group's influence comes from its work with local organizations and deep connections with major corporations -- two links that may take a hit in the climate controversy.
"The bigger message for outside [of Washington] is that the chamber has not been doing its job, and it's alienated its members and its affiliates," Altman said. "That's brand damage that matters and that their local and state affiliates are going to have to worry about. The more of them get annoyed, the harder it's going to be to tap those kinds of resources."
Liberal bloggers have certainly pounced on the news, with many describing the chamber as promoting a "right-wing agenda" rather than serving as the voice of business. Many are arguing that the group's ability to influence lawmakers will be significantly weakened by the public criticism from some of its own members.
But Mike McKenna, a Republican lobbyist who works on energy issues, said it is not clear that the chamber departures or the counter-messaging from liberals will do much to move the needle in either direction. Because the issue has become so high-profile, he said, lobbying of any single group is relatively inconsequential.
"This has gone beyond lobbying," McKenna said. "Senators are making decisions not really based on what specific businesses are telling them, they are making the decisions based on the political ramifications."
He added, "Lobbying tends to be really important on the smaller legislation. This has gotten to the size where no one company or one entity can really influence a lawmaker's vote."
Indeed, the fight over the climate bill has been distinctly characterized by efforts on both sides to control public perception of the issue. Both supporters and critics of Democratic climate legislation say the fate of the issue will lie more in the anticipated political fallout from votes on the bill than from what is in the measure itself.
For environmentalists, that has meant trying to create an aura of inevitability about climate legislation and trying to marginalize critics by painting them as political outliers that do not represent the American mainstream.
Already, groups on the left have rolled out poll after poll showing strong public support for addressing climate change, an effort designed to convince fence-sitting lawmakers in both chambers that a vote for cap-and-trade legislation won't cost them at the polls. And the endorsement by major business interests of climate legislation -- or at least a rebuke of the chamber -- provides yet another vehicle to drive that message home.
"I think it's very important to signal to people that this has support from a coalition of people that runs the gamut," said Josh Dorner, a spokesman for the group Clean Energy Works, a coalition of 60 or so groups pushing for passage of the climate bill.
Dorner added, "I think you'll be seeing more from us on this, and I think it provides a particularly vivid contrast for what's happening on our side. Our coalition is growing, while theirs is shrinking."
Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), a strong advocate of the climate bill, said that as the Senate debate begins, the chamber defections will be noticed on Capitol Hill. "This is a significant event; the businesses would not do this lightly," Inslee said. "Members of Congress have finely tuned antennas, and this is a vibration they're going to pick up."
But the chamber's Josten contends that while the spotlight lately has shone on the chamber and disagreements among its members, there are other business coalitions whose members are also not all on the same page. Not all members of U.S. Climate Action Partnership, he said, endorsed the House version of the climate bill.
"It's kind of funny that NRDC, using the rubric of U.S. CAP, tries to portray this consensus," Josten said.
McKenna and others also said that even as Exelon and PG&E claim in their statements that their departures from the chamber stem from disagreement over a critical issue, both companies stand to gain from final passage of a climate bill that resembles the House-passed version because of subsidies loaded in that measure.
"Among the folks who have split off, some chunk of it is rent-seeking," McKenna said. "We should call a spade a spade here."
He added, "Let's say they have even one-tenth of that 3 million. ... If you have 300,000 members and two left, would you try to rethink your business model? This isn't exactly a rush to the exits."
Senior reporter Darren Samuelsohn contributed.
OnPoint: PG&E's Darbee explains company's decision to leave U.S. Chamber
Last week, PG&E Corp. announced it would leave the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, citing concerns over the group's "extreme" views on climate change legislation. Just days later, another utility, PNM Resources Inc., announced it would leave the chamber. During Monday's OnPoint, Peter Darbee, president and CEO of PG&E Corp., explained his company's decision. He discussed the chamber's stance on climate policy and explained how other member companies have reacted to PG&E's move. Darbee also gave his views on the congressional climate debate.
Click here to watch Monday's OnPoint.