U.S. Chamber may cut off some donations after Capitol riot

Big business lobby watching how members act ‘in the days ahead’

Chamber of Commerce CEO Tom Donohue called President Donald Trump's conduct last week "absolutely unacceptable" as the organization said it would review who to support going forward. (Roll Call file photo)
Chamber of Commerce CEO Tom Donohue called President Donald Trump's conduct last week "absolutely unacceptable" as the organization said it would review who to support going forward. (Roll Call file photo)
Posted January 12, 2021 at 6:04pm

Lobbyists for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the biggest K Street organization and a regular donor to congressional campaigns, said Tuesday they were evaluating which lawmakers to cut off from the group’s political support after rioters stormed the Capitol last week.  

“There are some members who by their actions will have forfeited the support of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — period, full stop,” Neil Bradley, the chamber’s executive vice president and chief policy officer, said during a virtual news conference Tuesday. “We’re going to have a lot more to say about the members whose actions last week — and the actions over the next eight days and beyond — will have cost them the chamber’s support.”

The chamber’s deliberations come amid a backlash from corporate America after President Donald Trump encouraged his supporters to fight Congress’ electoral certification last week. Some of the nation’s biggest companies and most recognizable brands have vowed to pause all their political donations, while others have said they will cut off the 140 GOP lawmakers who voted against certifying the electoral votes of Arizona and Pennsylvania last week, even after the deadly attempted insurrection. 

“Companies and associations are all tailoring the right response based on how they operate their political giving programs and their PAC programs,” Bradley said. “What you’re seeing across the board is that business is stepping up and saying we have a role to play in help restoring democratic norms, and we want to play that role.” 

The Capitol riot of last week has sent shockwaves through corporate ranks and has K Street lobbyists scrambling.

“Corporations have become much more concerned about reputational risks, and what we are seeing is an admittedly unprecedented result of that,” said Democratic lobbyist Lisa Kountoupes, president of the lobbying firm Kountoupes, Denham, Carr & Reid. “It’s extreme, but so were the events that precipitated it.”

‘Pivotal change’

Liberal advocates of campaign finance overhaul said the companies’ responses show the influence of political spending and called for more disclosures of campaign spending, especially donations to nonprofit organizations such as the chamber that don’t need to disclose all of their backers. 

Companies’ and associations’ “new abhorrence towards spending money to support politicians who helped incite violence or supported false election fraud claims is a pivotal change,” said Lisa Gilbert of Public Citizen. The chamber, she added, should go further by supporting bans on or disclosures of “secret” political spending — something the chamber is unlikely to do. 

The chamber’s longtime top lobbyist and CEO, Tom Donohue, noted during his annual State of American Business address on Tuesday that “violence has no place in our democracy.” During the news conference shortly after his speech, Donohue read from a prepared statement when a reporter asked if he viewed the events of last week as an attempted coup. 

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“The president’s conduct last week was absolutely unacceptable and completely inexcusable. By his words and actions, he has undermined our democratic institutions and ideals,” he read. “It is for the vice president, the Cabinet, and Congress to decide whether or not to invoke the 25th Amendment or pursue impeachment or other measures — and we trust them to use those tools judiciously, if needed, to ensure our nation’s well-being and security.”

The chamber has disclosed spending more than $55 million on federal lobbying during the first three quarters of 2020. It has, over the four years of the Trump administration, frequently backed the president on such matters as a reduction of tax rates and on business deregulation. But the group opposed the president on immigration policy and tariffs. 

Donohue said the chamber was ready to work with President-elect Joe Biden's administration and the 117th Congress on a package to spur infrastructure projects as well as on immigration matters. It also is lobbying Congress to provide more economic relief to companies and Americans amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

However, Donohue and Bradley made clear the group will be at odds with Democrats over a push for a $15 federal minimum wage. 

Points for governing

When it comes to the chamber’s political support, Bradley noted that two years ago the group started factoring in lawmakers’ “commitment” to governing and to bipartisan collaboration as part of its rankings. 

The chamber's PAC reported nearly $650,000 in donations during the 2020 election cycle, according to federal disclosures analyzed by the Center for Responsive Politics. Of that, nearly $500,000 went to Republicans, including some who voted to decertify the election results, such as Sens. Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi and Tommy Tuberville of Alabama. The chamber's PAC also donated to House members who voted that way, including Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, Matt Rosendale of Montana and California's Mike Garcia, among others.

The chamber declined to say whether it would cut off specific senators, such as Missouri’s Josh Hawley, who was the first senator to say he would join House members in objecting to state electors. But Bradley did offer a verbal endorsement of some lawmakers, including GOP Sens. Todd Young of Indiana and Roy Blunt of Missouri, Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, GOP Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Rodney Davis of Illinois, and Democratic Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York. 

“Part of governing is a respect for democracy, democratic norms and democratic institutions,” Bradley said, noting that the chamber would “take into account the totality of what candidates and elected officials do including the actions of last week and, importantly, the actions in the days ahead in determining whether or not we support them.”

Katko backs impeachment

Rep. John Katko, a New York Republican and frequent target of Democrats, spoke on a panel Tuesday about forging bipartisan solutions to aid the economic recovery that was part of the chamber's programming. He revealed after the program that he would support impeaching Trump if the House, as expected, takes the issue up this week.

Katko said at the chamber program that he had a personal connection to one of the injured Capitol Police officers, whom he said had been a former intern. Just before the panel, he said, he had met with the officer's mother.

"So it’s real and it’s very serious, and it’s a dark day in our history. But we need to band together as a country,” he said.

The chamber, long associated as part of the GOP political milieu, rankled some of its own insiders during the 2020 cycle by endorsing a slate of two dozen freshman Democrats, some of whom lost in November. The chamber’s longtime political director, Scott Reed, left the organization last year. 

“I spent 20 years on Capitol Hill, 11 in that building,” Bradley said Tuesday. “I can’t tell you the personal fury that I feel for what’s happened. ... So that’s why we’re going to be methodical about holding people accountable but also rewarding those individuals who have earned our support and need to be recognized in this moment.”