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As GOP takes House control, where does Chamber of Commerce stand?

Business lobby faces heat for Democratic endorsements, policy stances

House GOP sources say the relationship between the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Republican leaders like Reps. Kevin McCarthy and Steve Scalise remains strained over issues such as the chamber’s endorsement of a slate of Democrats in the 2020 elections.
House GOP sources say the relationship between the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Republican leaders like Reps. Kevin McCarthy and Steve Scalise remains strained over issues such as the chamber’s endorsement of a slate of Democrats in the 2020 elections. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, once considered especially cozy with Republicans on Capitol Hill, faces friction with the incoming House GOP majority after policy and political rifts. 

The business group, which typically spends more than any other entity on federal lobbying, has found itself at odds with House Republicans over endorsements of legislation and Democratic candidates in recent years. Months ago, House GOP leaders said they would refuse meetings with the group. 

With the slim majority House Republicans will have in the 118th Congress and given that Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has not locked in the votes from his own conference to become speaker, House GOP leaders have been quieter of late about their views on the chamber. The business group says it’s focusing on its relationships with lawmakers, including newly elected Republicans, who want to broker legislative deals and solve problems to make the economy stronger. 

In the new Congress, the dynamics between House Republicans and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and more broadly the nation’s business community, will likely expose conflicts as well as present opportunities for alliances. The relationship could prove pivotal for whatever the divided Congress does, or does not, accomplish. 

The rift comes as Republicans, starting with the tea party movement more than a decade ago and then under former President Donald Trump, have taken a more populist, less corporate-friendly tack, appealing to working-class voters oftentimes at the expense of policy positions preferred by old-school, country club GOPers. 

“I look at the relationship with the chamber and House Republicans, including Kevin McCarthy, as one where you see a marriage that has children, and the parents separate and they try to get together one more time for the sake of the kids,” said Ivan Adler, a longtime K Street recruiter. 

The offices of McCarthy and GOP Whip Steve Scalise, the majority leader-to-be, did not respond to requests for comment, but as recently as this year they’ve said they wouldn’t take meetings with the group, according to Axios and other outlets. McCarthy, Axios has also reported, privately suggested that the chamber replace its relatively new CEO, Suzanne Clark. 

House GOP sources, including members of Congress, and other people familiar with the chamber privately say the relationship remains strained over issues including the chamber’s endorsements of a slate of Democrats in the 2020 elections and, more generally, corporate America’s support for an immigration overhaul and its embrace of environmental, social and governance policies, which many elected Republicans deride as “woke.” 

Neil Bradley, the chamber’s executive vice president, chief policy officer and head of strategic advocacy, says he views the business group’s relationship with the incoming House majority as “really strong.” The chamber brought on former West Virginia Rep. Evan Jenkins, a Republican, as its head of congressional affairs in September. 

Bradley, a former House GOP leadership aide who previously worked for McCarthy, shrugged off the tensions that have erupted into public view. 

“This isn’t new,” he said. “There have been politicians in both parties going back decades who think that they should get to decide not just who the chamber hires, but people all over town, who they hire. And that’s just not the way associations or business or any of these things work.”  

The chamber’s ties to some of the incoming House GOP freshmen, including such majority makers as Mike Lawler of New York or Tom Kean Jr. of New Jersey, may position the group more favorably than if Republicans had won control of the chamber in a landslide. Kean appeared at the chamber’s November board meeting along with other new or incoming members such as Marc Molinaro of New York, Mike Flood of Nebraska and Erin Houchin of Indiana, according to sources familiar with the event. 

“A smaller majority, honestly, makes the chamber more valuable here,” said Adler, the headhunter.  

Steve Roberts, president and CEO of the West Virginia Chamber, said the U.S. Chamber has to speak for a “broad and diverse” set of business interests. “And sometimes that’s going to rankle and roil, but many times I think it’s going to make perfect sense. And the chamber will end up being able to work well with the congressional leadership.”

As for Capitol Hill critics of the group, Roberts said, some “in the heat discussion have drawn some bright lines. I suspect that one of the results of the last election we’ve had is that those lines have begun to fade some because, first of all, the chamber had a very strong record of winning in its endorsement process. Secondly, the chamber really is reflecting the point of view of its members.” 

Reduced election spending

The chamber, long the top player in federal lobbying, endorsed 77 candidates in the 2022 midterms, including Kean, Houchin and Molinaro. Overall, the chamber’s endorsements and political spending appear to have gone down this cycle, compared with previous elections.

The chamber’s public disclosures show nearly $1.4 million in independent expenditures, most for Republican candidates or committees, in the 2021-22 cycle, according to a preliminary roundup by the nonpartisan OpenSecrets.org. For the 2012 election, that total was $35.7 million. The chamber also sent $3 million in August to the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Senate Republican leadership, according to SLF disclosures to the Federal Election Commission. No similar donation to the Congressional Leadership Fund, the super PAC aligned with House GOP leaders, had been disclosed to the FEC as of this week. 

In the 2020 election cycle, the chamber endorsed a slate of about 30 Democrats and 190 Republicans and faced a backlash from Republicans over the support for some of the Democrats, who did not frequently vote in line with the chamber’s position on legislation. The Kansas Chamber of Commerce severed its membership with the U.S. Chamber over the national group’s endorsement of Democratic Rep. Sharice Davids in the state’s 3rd District, according to a 2021 report in The Kansas City Star. Davids won reelection by 13 percentage points this year.

The Kansas Chamber declined comment to CQ Roll Call. 

Bradley said the Washington group endorsed fewer members of each party this cycle in part because of the backlash it created in some cases.

“Our endorsement consisted of getting a letter, and people were getting angry that someone got a letter,” Bradley said. “And by the way, a letter, it doesn’t signify a deep, lasting relationship, and so this year our program focused on endorsing fewer overall candidates, but going into their districts and doing events with them and highlighting the endorsement and featuring them with local small businesses.”

Chamber endorsements sometimes come with political money, but not always. 

Bradley’s personal donations this year also raised eyebrows among some congressional Republicans, according to GOP sources who spoke on condition of anonymity. He donated $10,000 to Republican candidates, including Lawler and Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska, and $3,000 to Democrats, including Virginia Rep. Abigail Spanberger, who won a tight race that was seen as a bellwether of the parties’ strength in the midterms. 

Financial strain 

Politics isn’t the only pressure the chamber is under. 

Associations, generally, have struggled in recent years to keep dues-paying members happy — and paying their dues. It’s a longtime problem for associations to try to get a majority of members on board with a particular policy effort. 

Delta Air Lines, for example, said it was going to discontinue its membership in the chamber in the new year, but not because of any political disputes.  

“Delta is a current member of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and will remain so through the end of the year,” said a spokeswoman for the airline. “We informed the Chamber several months ago that we would be unable to renew membership for 2023 due exclusively to budget constraints and the need to prioritize our industry-specific trade association. We look forward to staying in touch with the Chamber as we work through those constraints and will reassess membership for 2024 later next year.”

A chamber spokesman said the group doesn’t comment on membership details but added, via email, that “membership retention exceeds 90% as we are providing clear value to them.”

Total revenue for the chamber declined in 2021, according to the group’s tax filing, to $204 million from $230 million the prior year.  

Despite the challenges, the chamber’s Bradley said he’s optimistic about getting things done in the new Congress. 

“The consensus expectations in Washington underestimate how productive this next Congress is going to be,” he said, noting that energy measures, permitting reform, immigration and border security all remain possibilities. Anything that gets through Congress during the next two years will need bipartisan support, he added, suggesting a model would be last year’s infrastructure deal, which notably put the chamber crosswise with House GOP leadership. 

“We were instrumental — to the objection of some Republicans, particularly in the House — but we were instrumental in getting the infrastructure bill done,” Bradley said.

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