Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Book Review: 'The Influence Machine: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Corporate Capture of American Life' by Alyssa Katz

The Influence Machine: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Corporate Capture of American Life

By Alyssa Katz

Review by David Wineberg

The twin tactics of fear and secrecy are the success of the US Chamber of Commerce. Threatening elected officials with massive attack ad campaigns keeps them in line – the Republican line. Offering ironclad secrecy to firms with an agenda is immensely profitable. The chamber has morphed from representing business large and small to representing itself. It is the lobby with the biggest war chest, the most tentacles (worldwide according to Katz) and the most obnoxious tactics.

The chamber (in the person of its leader Tom Donohue, who is entirely responsible for this makeover,) goes on witch hunts in elections, in regulation, in the judiciary – anywhere that money can stymie change. It loves to exaggerate. Every little change in regulations will lead to “collapse” – one of its favorite words. Minor adjustments in regulations will lead to $100 billion or even a trillion dollars in damage to business. It exaggerates membership numbers to frighten the regulators, exaggerates funding to frighten opposition candidates, and exaggerates potential effects with unsubstantiated claims. The exaggeration is so blatant and farfetched, it is a wonder anyone in Washington listens to them at all. Except of course, for the fear factor, which gives everyone there a blind eye to the chamber’s remonstrations. It sees its main enemies as trial lawyers, unions, and “extreme environmentalists”, Donohue said in 1997. To put it in perspective, even the Reagan Administration thought the chamber extreme.

When all else fails, it sues. It is forever suing the federal government, over every move and regulation it wants to implement. It will sue over the interpretation of a comma. Judges get impatient and often throw the cases out, so the chamber goes after judges at election time, dumping enormous piles of money on otherwise quiet campaigns. Lies and innuendo promoting fear are its standard formula.

The book is very one-sided. Katz’s position and conclusion are clear from the outset. It is a very broad, topline history, without much depth and no discoveries. I don’t think there is anything here that hasn’t already been reported somewhere else. You would be hardpressed to point to anything positive by the US Chamber in the past 20 years from this book.

The irony is that the US Chamber is in the best position to play one party off against the other and score victory after victory for the business climate nationwide. Instead, it takes an entirely (Republican) political stance, limiting its own possibilities, alienating local chambers and damaging its own credibility. And in the process, hurting Americans in all walks of life on behalf of giant polluters and labor abusers and poisoners.

“We’re stuck with these insane loonies who will just block anything.” - John Parsons, MIT

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right. 

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