President Barack Obama and Jeffrey Immelt, chairman and chief executive of General Electric, tour a plant belonging to the company in Schenectady, New York, on January 21, 2011. (Photo: Drew Angerer / The New York Times)
President Barack Obama is hoping to “mend ties” with big business by speaking to the US Chamber of Commerce (COC), Washington DC’s top lobbyist. That’s the frame we’re hearing in the corporate media even though the President has extended the Bush tax cuts, recently named JP Morgan Chase executive and former COC board member William Daley as his chief of staff, and chose General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt to head the new “White House Council on Jobs and Competitiveness.”
Since 2009, GE has closed more than 25 manufacturing plants in the US and slashed thousands of jobs, according to the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America. While GE has laid off at least 10,000 workers in the US, it has created more than 30,000 jobs in India over the past decade. The administration’s job czar runs a company that employs more workers overseas than it does in the US.
During his recent eight-hour floor speech on inequality, tax cuts for the ultra-wealthy, and corporate greed, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) cited an investors' meeting on December 6, 2002 at which Immelt said, "When I am talking to GE managers, I talk China, China, China, China, China. You need to be there. You need to change the way people talk about it and how they get there. I am a nut on China. Outsourcing from China is going to grow to $5 billion. We are building a tech center in China. Every discussion today has to center on China. The cost basis is extremely attractive."
Since Immelt became CEO in 2001, he has been paid $90 million in salary, cash, and pension benefits, and like most multi-nationals, GE just posted better-than-expected fourth quarter and 2010 profits.
According to the Wall Street Journal, with about half of the largest corporations already reporting fourth-quarter profits, 2010 is expected to deliver the third-best full-year gain since 1998. Chevron’s fourth-quarter profits rose 72 percent. Dow Chemical’s profits rose a whopping 188 percent.
The banks that received $13 trillion in bailout money and subsidies with no strings attached are also posting record profits and paying their CEOs multi-million dollar salaries. According to the New York Times, 2010 was JPMorgan Chase’s most profitable year. CEO Jamie Dimon is expected to take home $17.5 million, while four of his top executives have been awarded stock worth more than $10 million each.
At the recent state dinner with Chinese President Hu Jintao, attendees included Boeing CEO James McNerney, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent, Dow Chemical CEO Andrew Liveris and The Carlyle Group Co-Founder David Rubenstein. Even Henry Kissinger, the man who is facing international arrest warrants for war crimes, was there.
And yet The Washington Post claims that President Obama is speaking to the COC to “rebuild ties with corporate America?”
What most media outlets fail to mention is that many of the corporations that fund the COC are responsible for sending millions of jobs overseas and yet they present themselves as the saviors for job creation as long as they continue receiving tax breaks. “And that’s just wrong,” says Sasha Abramsky, a freelance journalist who is working on a book about the COC. “It’s a rewriting of history and the fact that they haven’t been called on it is a major failing among progressive politicians.”
Abramsky says the COC claims to speak for all American businesses and by extension, for all Americans, but it’s important to point out that it’s “got a very sectarian, very narrow agenda.”
The COC used to claim that it represents “three million businesses of all sizes, sectors, and regions,” but a 2009 investigation by Mother Jones’ Josh Harkinson found that the number is closer to 200,000. A day after the story appeared, the COC quietly revised its membership number from three million to 300,000.
When most people think of the COC, images of their local Chamber and mom and pop shops come to mind, but according to the Mother Jones piece, “many state and local chambers don't want the national body to speak for their members. Since 2006, when the Chamber offered to automatically enroll local members in the national group free of charge, only 354 of the nation's 7,000 state and local chambers have signed up.”
“The US Chamber is the largest lobbying organization in the country,” says Kristy Setzer, communications director of the union-backed watchdog group, US Chamber Watch. “It is not lobbying on behalf of small business owners. It is lobbying to protect the handful of very large CEOs that fund its budget.”
According to the US Chamber Watch, the COC’s more than 100-member board includes CEOs from Dow Chemical, JP Morgan Chase, AT&T, and Caterpillar; just 16 corporations, including WellPoint, Cigna, Charles Schwab, and Hewlett Packard provide 60 percent of the COC’s $200 million budget.
The COC is not required to reveal specific contribution information, so it’s difficult to break down individual donations. In October, Politico reported that the News Corporation, whose holdings include the Fox News Channel and the Wall Street Journal, donated $1M to the COC.
“That’s probably the most disheartening thing about the Chamber’s business model. It is all so secret. It’s done that way by design,” says Setzer.
She says anonymous contributions allow major corporations to hide behind policy positions that might be unpopular with their customers and the public at large, including repealing the healthcare law, undermining climate legislation, and extending tax breaks to companies that send jobs overseas. Since President Bill Clinton signed NAFTA in 1993, American corporations have shut down 43,000 factories, resulting in the loss of 5.1 million manufacturing jobs, according to Public Citizen.
According to a Bloomberg report, America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), the health insurance lobby whose members include Humana, Aetna, WellPoint, and Cigna, gave the Chamber $86.2 million in 2009 to oppose real healthcare reform. The COC ran TV ads in over 20 states warning that a public option would lead to “expanded government control over your health.”
"By funneling the money through the Chamber," says the report, "insurers were able to remain at the table negotiating with Democrats while still getting the bill criticized."
At the March 5, 2009 White House Health Care Summit, where doctors and single payer advocates were arrested for standing up to ask why single payer reform was not on the table, AHIP president Karen Ignagni told President Obmaa he could count on her and the insurance industry. “We want to work with the members of Congress on a bipartisan basis here. You have our commitment. We hear the American people about what’s not working. We’ve taken that seriously,” she said. “You have our commitment to play, to contribute, and to help pass health care reform this year.”
President Obama responded by saying, “Good. Thank you, Karen. That’s good news. That’s America’s Health Insurance Plans.”
At today’s speech to 200 COC members, President Obama said, “I’m here today because I’m convinced we can and must work together.”
“It’s unclear what is more mortifying: President Barack Obama choosing the club of America’s notorious job-offshorers to talk about the importance of creating American jobs, or his rallying of his fiercest political opponents to help him overcome the majority of Americans who oppose more-of-the-same job-killing trade agreements and pass a NAFTA-style deal with Korea that the government’s own analysis shows will increase our trade deficit,” said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, in response to today’s speech.
“The US Chamber of Commerce audience must have been thrilled to have Obama push more of the trade agreements that both help them offshore American jobs and, given that most Americans oppose more of these job-killing trade pacts, can help them achieve their political goal of replacing Obama in 2012.”
The Economic Policy Institute estimates that the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement will cost 159,000 US jobs within the first seven years after it takes effect. Congress is expected to vote on the deal in the coming months.
Listen to Your Call’s recent show about the COC. We invited the COC and the California COC to join us, but both declined our invitations.
Sasha Abramsky, freelance journalist who is working on a book about the COC
Christy Setzer, spokeswoman for US Chamber Watch
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Rose Aguilar is the host of "Your Call," a daily call-in radio show on KALW 91.7 FM in San Francisco and on KUSP 88.9 FM in Santa Cruz. She is author of "Red Highways: A Liberal's Journey Into the Heartland."