Earlier this year, Tom Donohue, the CEO of the US Chamber of Commerce, described himself and his colleagues as industry's "political reinsurance salesmen." He explained: "We're the people that you could come to. . .when you were in trouble [and we] were going to be there for you." Well, the reinsurance policy that the Chamber sold to BP has been activated in grand form. Here are five ways that the US Chamber of Commerce has shilled for the unpopular oil company since the early days of its Gulf disaster:
- On Monday, the Chamber pushed for a permanent end to the Obama administration's ban on deepwater oil drilling. Karen Herbert, the president of the Chamber's Institute for 21st Century Energy, said the ban "has had a chilling effect on activity" in the Gulf and shouldn't block" responsible development."
- This week, the Chamber is lobbying against the SPILL Act, which would overturn an archaic law, the Death on the High Seas Act, that limits the ability of ship passengers (and the families of dead Deepwater Horizon workers) to sue for damages.
- Last week, a lobbyist for the Chamber's Institute for Legal Reform helped defeat a bill in the Louisiana legislature that would have made it easier for the state's attorney general to sue BP for damages. The bill would have allowed the AG to try the case with the help of private attorneys working on contingency, a privilege that allows AGs in 48 other states to attract top legal talent.
- In a roundtable discussion held in May by the Christian Science Monitor, Donohue said that Congress should not lift a $75 million cap on BP's liability for the spill. "It's generally not the practice of this country to change the laws after the game," he said. He also complained that oil execs were being "unfairly beat up like unruly children for the TV cameras." And he argued that some of the gusher's cleanup cost would need to be shouldered by taxpayers: "Everybody is going to have to contribute to this cleanup," he said. "We’re all going to have to do it. . . .We’re going to have to get the money from the government and the companies. And we’ll figure out a way to do that."
- In early May, the Chamber lobbied hard for an amendment to the Senate's financial reform bill that would create a regulatory loophole for many companies that use derivatives, the risky financial instruments that played a large role in the financial crisis. The loophole would apply to BP.
And the love between the Chamber and BP doesn't stop there. Even before the Deepwater Horizon exploded, the Chamber and its affiliates were working extensively to loosen government controls on the British oil company. In 2006, BP gave $3 million to a 527 group that was created by Allan Zaremberg, the president of the California Chamber of Commerce, to defeat a tax on oil and gas producers that would have funded alternative energy research. And of course, the US Chamber has led efforts to water down carbon caps in national climate legislation—a move that BP supports despite its rhetoric about going "beyond petroleum."
Clearly, though, BP needs the Chamber more now than ever. Any lobbying that BP does in Washington would be useless if not counterproductive at this point, yet the nation's baddest big business bully still inspires fear on Capitol Hill. Still, even the mighty Chamber must ponder how long to defend the most unpopular kid in class. Because when Democrats and Republicans alike are distancing themselves, the Chamber's reinsurance comes at a hefty political price.