Both sides deny they are conducting a feud. But anyone standing between the White House and the venerable Chamber of Commerce headquarters across Washington’s Lafayette Square should don a flak jacket.
“The White House thinks the chamber is not cool and that the cool companies are companies like Google,” says Bruce Josten, the chamber’s head lobbyist, whom George W. Bush nicknamed “Big guy”.
“But if you look at the source of the biggest new demand for electricity it’s the companies with the large servers.”
The dispute, which has pitted the chamber against almost every big White House initiative, including its plans to tackle climate change, healthcare reform and financial regulatory reform, illuminates how divided US business has become.
Ten years ago, the chamber might have spoken uncontroversially for most of its 3m members on climate change or healthcare. Today, many of them dispute its stances.
Four companies, including Apple and Exelon, quit the chambers in protest last month over its opposition to the climate change bill, which has since stalled in the Senate.
Their disquiet had been exacerbated when the chamber’s senior environmental spokesman likened the debate over global warming to the notorious “monkey Scopes” trial of the 1920s on the teaching of evolution.
Mr Josten admits it was a “stupid thing to say”. But he points out that the chamber has long supported action on climate change, which it accepts is man-made. “What we object to is this bill in particular, not tackling climate change in general,” he says. “The White House is trying to divert attention from the fact that the Democratic party is hopelessly divided on all these issues by picking a fight with the chamber.”
The fall-out goes beyond words. Since the start of the year the chamber, which is arguably Washington’s most powerful lobbying organisation, has spent $37m (€24.6m, £22.6m) opposing healthcare reform.
It has launched a campaign for “American Free Enterprise”, highlighting the alleged dangers to the free market system under the Obama administration, including its plan to change the law to make it easier for workers to join a trade union – a bill that has also stalled.
The chamber has also taken a strong stance against Barack Obama’s proposals to set up a consumer financial protection regulatory agency, which probably contributed to the dilution of the bill in the House of Representatives this week.
Again, the chamber argues that it does not oppose financial reform in general and has been pushing for rationalisation of Washington’s “gaggle of regulatory agencies” since the Enron debacle of 2001.
None of which cuts any ice with Mr Obama, whose officials have infuriated the chamber by depicting it as an “antiquated” lobby group.
One official, pointing to the fact that other organisations, such as the Business Roundtable, back climate change legislation and healthcare reform, said: “We leave it to the chamber to evaluate whether their positions on key issues are in line with their membership.”
The official added that there was “no feud” with the White House. Yet the president has picked up the habit of meeting the chief executives of companies independently, rather than going through the traditional gatekeeper across Lafayette Square.
In the past few months Mr Obama has had three lunches with chief executives, representing the kind of new economy companies who backed his campaign.
These include people such as Jeff Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon, Howard Schultz, chief of Starbucks, and even Mike Duke, chief of Walmart, which has turned into an unexpected ally to the Democratic party on healthcare and climate change.
So far, Tom Donohue, the head of the chamber, is not among Mr Obama’s lunch guests. “Washington is changing and meeting with business leaders directly is simply to gather their ideas and seek their input,” said the White House official. “There is less of a need for a middle man.”
As one Democratic lobbyist puts it: “It is one thing to be attacked. It is another to be ignored.”
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