The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has long supported immigration reforms and Common Core academic standards that are anathema to the Tea Party. The group also favors infrastructure investment that might require — Tea Party gasp of horror here — new federal spending. Now it has added another cause that’s unpopular in the to-the-barricades, all-or-nothing precincts of the Republican Party: constructive governance.
It’s enough to make a center-left establishmentarian root for a group that sinks tens of millions of dollars into defeating Democrats.
In 2010, not quite recognizing the tiger it was riding, the Chamber helped send a Tea Party contingent to Capitol Hill. The four years since then, punctuated by government shutdowns, default threats and challenges to business-oriented Republicans, have been revelatory to the Chamber. Traditionally, its discussions with congressional candidates have focused on their campaigns and their support for policies friendly to free enterprise. There’s now a third topic.
“The new thing we talk about in detail is governing,” Scott Reed — the group’s senior political strategist — told me and journalist Walter Shapiro during our reporting for the Brookings Institution Primaries Project, released this week. “Unlike these other efforts that shut down the day after the election, we’re a 365-day-a-year lobbying organization. The governing part is important to us. If you’re not coming here to govern, what’s the point?”
Compromise, Reed added, is “absolutely” a part of governing. “It’s a good word,” he said. “Not a bad word. Not a swear word.”
The Chamber is now the leading counterweight to the Tea Party movement. It has already spent $30 million this year on primaries, special elections and the general election, and is on track to exceed its 2012 spending. Overall, about two-thirds of business-oriented candidates won their primaries this year, compared with about half of Tea Party and conservative candidates, according to a quantitative analysis by the Primaries Project. The Chamber endorsed many more candidates than it supported financially. But where it spent, it almost always won.
Since 2012, the Chamber has increased spending on independent expenditures more than any other outside group, liberal or conservative, according to a Campaign Finance Institute report that is part of the Primaries Project. In contrast, three groups associated with Tea Party candidates top the list of those that have reduced their spending.
It would be premature to suggest that the political tides are shifting, or, as President Obama once said hopefully, the fever is breaking. Compromise has been maddeningly, tragically elusive since Obama took office greeted by GOP vows to prevent a second term for him. Yet the Chamber’s new focus and electoral successes are hopeful signs for those of us who would like to see a more functional capital.
The rightward pull and confrontational tactics of the Tea Party have been particularly galling to the GOP’s business allies. The Affordable Care Act is a prime example of Tea Party pressure at work. Republicans held dozens of futile repeal votes on Capitol Hill, and iron resolve to kill it was the price of admission to GOP primaries this year.
Yet this law is based on the conservative principles of private-sector competition and personal responsibility. In an alternative universe of mend-don’t-end, Republicans might have proposed improvements such as canceling the ACA requirement that larger businesses offer health insurance. And they might have won. Even the center-left Urban Institute has concluded that “the ACA can achieve all its major objectives without the employer mandate” and asks, why not just eliminate it?
More openness to compromise in the House likely would have produced a major new immigration law, given that the Senate passed a bipartisan reform bill supported by the White House. It would have also avoided the terrible-for-business government shutdowns and default threats precipitated by Tea Party absolutism on spending, the ACA and the federal debt.
The infrastructure omission is perhaps the most tragic wasted opportunity. Over a period when long-term unemployment was a serious problem, when interest rates were historically low and when so much infrastructure building and repair was needed, nothing significant happened. This despite repeated proposals from the White House and lawmakers of both parties, and outside support across the spectrum from the chamber to the AFL-CIO.
Future generations may find the infrastructure failure the most difficult to understand or forgive. We could have created jobs or at least incentives to help break the ruinous cycle of people not being able to get work because they’ve been out of work too long. But we didn’t, and doing it later won’t help those for whom it’s already too late economically or psychologically.
The Chamber will never be even slightly liberal. Its endorsement of former Sen. Scott Brown in the New Hampshire Senate race was the most recent reminder of where its political loyalties lie. But when it comes to immigration, education, infrastructure and — above all — its intent to revive the lost art of governing, this group has my vote.
Follow Jill Lawrence on Twitter @JillDLawrence. To find out more about Jill Lawrence and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
Photo: APK like a lollipop via Wikimedia Commons
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