How Scary Is the Chamber of Commerce?

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Also, Liz Peek gives a final bow.

As Halloween approaches, The New York Times has decided that the scariest goblin in the land is – surprise! – the Chamber of Commerce. Just this morning, the paper ran yet another front-page piece detailing campaign contributions from the Chamber, which has so far ponied up $21.1 million to business-friendly candidates in this cycle. The Times claims that the pro-business group is funding an “orchestrated campaign to become one of the most well-financed critics of the Obama administration.”

(Not to be left behind, and using different data, the Wall Street Journal ran a page-one story today showing that the American Federation of State, Local and Municipal Employees is actually the “biggest outside spender of the 2010 elections,” having pumped some $87.5 million to various campaigns so far. “We’re the big dog,” Larry Scanlon, the political chief of the AF-SCME is quoted as saying.)

This is democracy at work. It’s messy and occasionally annoying, but it is also the way our country works. In this cycle, much has been made of the Supreme Court’s decision paving the way for greater corporate spending on political ads. President Obama has been crisscrossing the country hinting that the Chamber, and corporations generally, have some secret agenda harmful to the country. Interestingly, a review of campaign contributions over the past decade reveals that while big businesses do indeed heavily fund various campaigns, they spend for both Democrats and Republicans. Labor unions, on the other hand, funnel their money almost exclusively to Democrats. For instance, Goldman Sachs spent nearly $33 million between 1989 and 2009, 62% of which went to Dems.

More interesting, though, is the presumption that the Chamber of Commerce is working against the best interests of the U.S. With unemployment at 9.6%, one would think that supporting our business sector would be a universal ambition. Left-leaning organizations like the SEIU and MoveOn.org have rallied against the Chamber, which represents a federation of three million businesses. Some 96% of those companies are small enterprises with less than 100 employees. What exactly is the Chamber promoting that the Obama team finds so threatening?

Generally, the Chamber fights regulations, taxes and other policies that constrain our nation’s companies. For instance, they rail against government rules that, according to the Small Business Administration, ladle $10,585 of regulatory costs per employee on small businesses. (The SBA tallies the cost of complying with the spider web of government rules – a total of $1.75 trillion in 2008, or $15,500 per household.) Chamber CEO Thomas Donahue reports that The Code of Federal Regulations is almost 150,000 pages in length, and that the Obama administration is adding to this monstrosity at an unprecedented rate. The EPA alone is proposing 29 major rules and 173 others; the health-care act creates 183 new agencies, panels and other entities and the financial overhaul legislation requires almost 500 rulemakings, 60 studies and 93 reports. The only job growth such measures foster is in the number of regulators – which has climbed from 57,000 in 1960 to more than 284,000 today.

The Chamber also petitions for lower taxes on U.S. corporations, which face the highest rates of any developed country but Japan, expanded trade agreements, which President Obama has promised but failed to pass, and also fights labor initiatives seen as harmful to business.

Here’s a news flash to Americans: U.S. companies need help. They are struggling to compete in the global marketplace. Businesses in China (and numerous other countries) are supported and protected by a government single-mindedly focused on growth. Equally alarming, the U.S. is quickly becoming an unattractive place to invest. Money can and is going elsewhere, and the jobs are following. This is not in any way mysterious. When Ken Langone says that under today’s “onerous regulatory” regime he could not have started up Home Depot, Americans should be very, very worried.

The nation’s pessimism is on parade in a recent survey conducted by CNBC. Only 8% of the country thinks the economy is excellent or good, and only 37% thinks the economy will improve next year – down 5 points from a year ago. Almost half thinks that business is overregulated – up from 28% in 2009.

The prevailing wisdom is that the U.S. is in decline. I fight that notion, for many reasons. I believe in the power of the people; this country was founded on a belief in individualism and a commitment to liberty. Given the chance, most Americans want to better their lot in life and are willing to work hard to do so. Pessimists believe we’ve lost our edge. I disagree; the current hottest products and innovations are still streaming from our shores.

But – we have to fix our platform. We have to educate our young people, and allow our entrepreneurs to evolve without stifling them under a smog of regulations. We have to provide the infrastructure and facilitate success. That is a tall order, but I believe the increasingly alarmed public is coming on board.

I am also optimistic because the women of our country are taking a bigger role, and I firmly believe we are a force for progress. Which brings me to wOw. I have been writing on this site for more than two years – years that have been tumultuous and painful. We have argued the issues of these difficult days with vigor and, for the most part, with respect. I am a great admirer of the wOw community, which makes it difficult to tell you all that I have decided to take a sabbatical from my weekly column. Many will no doubt applaud this news; hopefully, some may miss me. All are welcome to visit me on my own website, LizPeek.com, where I will be posting articles written elsewhere.

Whatever your inclinations, I have welcomed your feedback, much of which has been informed and insightful. I leave you with this thought: Stay involved. This country needs balance and maturity – and women can provide both. Thank you all so much for being such a terrific audience and sounding board!

Editor’s Note: Liz Peek is a financial columnist.

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