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Tina Casey headshot

Back from the Brink: U.S. Chamber of Commerce Finds Its Footing in the 2020 Election Cycle

A few years ago, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was teetering on the edge of irrelevancy, as members questioned its stance on issues like climate change, but it showed signs of a radical shift leading up to Election Day.
By Tina Casey
U.S. Chamber of Commerce Finds Its Footing in the 2020 Election Cycle

Just a few years ago, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was teetering on the edge of irrelevancy. Among other issues, the organization’s conservative track record on climate action, tobacco sales and gun safety placed it at odds with prevailing trends in public sentiment. Top corporations and local Chamber affiliates began cutting or suspending their relationships with the Chamber, too. However, indications of a reset began to appear in recent years — and the Chamber has displayed signs of a more radical shift in the runup to Election Day 2020.

U.S. Chamber of Commerce responds to public sentiment

Hints of a reset emerged in 2018 when the U.S. Chamber of Commerce joined many other business leaders in publicly excoriating the Donald Trump administration over its family separation policy, through which hundreds of children were separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border. 

Last year, the Chamber again found itself at odds with President Trump when it added a page to its website that directly contradicts the president’s ongoing efforts to stymie climate action. The new web page affirms climate science, calls for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and advocates for U.S. leadership on global decarbonization.

“Climate policy should be informed by the best science and observations available," the Chamber now states on its website. "The U.S. should continue to be the world leader in climate change science and the major sponsor of the research used in multi-lateral scientific forums."

Lip service or real change?

The Chamber’s ongoing support for allies of fossil fuel stakeholders and its entanglement in environmental justice issues does undercut the force of its public statements. Nevertheless, public statements can be a springboard for change. In that regard, the Chamber of Commerce seemed poised to take a more proactive approach on contentious issues as Election Day 2020 drew closer.

One recent example occurred on Oct. 7 when the Chamber drew a roadmap for COVID-19 recovery in a public statement. Though not criticizing President Trump by name, the statement draws attention to the president’s failure to address the COVID-19 crisis and a raft of underlying issues including climate change, broadband and educational access, and resources for displaced workers. The list also includes immigration reform, likely referring to the Chamber’s support for immigrants in the DACA program — which defers deportation for undocumented people who arrived in the U.S. as children and meet certain criteria — in addition to its condemnation of the family separation policy.

“Whatever the outcome of the 2020 election, our elected leaders will face the same slate of challenges: bringing the pandemic under control, restoring our nation’s health, and revitalizing our economy,” the Chamber emphasized.

Trump administration awakens the sleeping dragon

The cautious tone of the Oct. 7 statement contrasts sharply with a public letter to the president issued by the Chamber of Commerce just one week later, on Oct. 15. The letter came in response to a new Executive Order that undermines diversity training programs among federal agencies and federal contractors.

Co-signed by 150 Chamber affiliates and trade organizations, the letter is a scathing, blow-by-blow criticism of the Executive Order. It is also a ringing endorsement of the current approach to diversity training.

“Federal contractors are firmly committed to maintaining a diverse and inclusive workforce and to providing their employees the necessary training to reinforce this goal,” the Chamber concluded. “The Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping does not help contractors in this regard, and in fact creates several significant obstacles and impediments.”

U.S. businesses stand up for the peaceful transfer of power

To be clear, the Chamber’s criticism of President Trump pales beside recent statements from other business leaders who have advocated for change in the runup to Election Day.

Just one recent example is a public statement cosigned by prominent Trump critic Mark Cuban along with 10 other top entrepreneurs and executives, lambasting the president’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis.

"While national leadership could have coordinated a swift response to protect both lives and livelihoods from the impact of the pandemic, small business were instead left largely to our own devices,” they wrote, while making the case to vote Joe Biden in as president.

Mild as it is, the Chamber of Commerce does count itself as part of a bipartisan groundswell of support for a peaceful transfer of power. In addition to business stakeholders, scores of prominent Republicans have also publicly advocated for a change in administrations, including former members of the president’s own staff.

There are some signs that this bipartisan environment has enabled the Chamber to advocate more forcefully for a peaceful change in administrations, a shift that is all the more significant in consideration of the president’s ever more desperate attempt to retain power, regardless of the will of the voters.

On Oct. 27, for example, the Chamber of Commerce joined the CEO-led coalition Business Roundtable, the American Property Casualty Insurance Association, ITI, the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, the National Retail Federation, and the Retail Industry Leaders Association in a joint statement calling for peace and patience during and after Election Day.

The public statement is a direct rebuke to President Trump, who concluded his 2020 campaign by insisting that vote-counting must stop at the stroke of midnight on Election Day. The imaginary deadline contradicts generations of legal elections precedent allowing for days if not weeks of counting before an official result is certified.

“Even under normal circumstances, it can take time to finalize results,” the Chamber of Commerce and its co-signers observe. “We urge all Americans to support the process set out in our federal and state laws and to remain confident in our country’s long tradition of peaceful and fair elections.”

The Chamber’s participation in that exercise lends force to other nonpartisan efforts advocating for a peaceful transfer of power, such as statements from the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, a coalition of more than 300 faith-based investors. On Oct. 22, ICCR sent a letter to more than 200 corporations urging them to push back strongly against the president for inventing the idea of widespread voter fraud and for encouraging his “army” of supporters to watch voters at the polls on Election Day.

The letter outlined a six-point strategy for corporations to use their platforms in support of a complete count, to condemn voter intimidation, and to advocate for a peaceful transfer of power. Most significantly, ICCR also advocated for corporations to direct their lobbying and political donations in support of these goals.

Given its track record of donating to Republican lawmakers who support President Trump, that last item will be a tough hill for the Chamber of Commerce to climb — but at least on this issue they have a running start, and a solid cushion of support from other business leaders.

Image credit: Element5 Digital/Unsplash

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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