The Chamber of Commerce's Health Reform Heretics

The group is hell-bent on undermining health care reform, but some of its local affiliates—gasp!—kind of like the law.

| Tue Jan. 25, 2011 7:00 AM EST

In October 2009, the US Chamber of Commerce had a full-scale revolt on its hands. Angry about the lobbying behemoth's full-bore opposition to Democratic climate-change legislation, Apple, Nike, Pacific Gas & Electric, and a handful of other blue-chip corporations quit the Chamber's board*. A few months later, about a dozen local Chambers of Commerce publicly broke away from the group, arguing that the national organization had swung too far to the right and no longer represented its members' views.

Now, some of the same questions are beginning to surface over the Chamber's hard-line stance on health care. Since the new Congress has begun, the group has come out swinging against "Obamacare," boosting conservative claims that reform is killing businesses and the economy. "It's time to go back to the drawing board," said Tom Donohue, the Chamber's chief executive officer, at his annual address last week. "The Chamber was a leader in the fight against this particular bill—and thus we support legislation in the House to repeal it."

Could another civil war erupt within the Chamber over health care reform? Given that full repeal isn't politically feasible any time soon, a repeat of 2009's defections seems unlikely, and the Chamber itself has begun adopting a more targeted approach to submarining reform. But when it comes to the Chamber's constituency outside the beltway, some local branches say they don't agree with the national Chamber's stance on repeal.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

In Draper, Utah—one of the state's fastest-growing suburbs—the business community has been enthusiastic about some of the early benefits of the legislation, William Rappleye, president of the Draper Chamber of Commerce, tells Mother Jones. He points in particular to the tax credits for employee health insurance that some small businesses will be eligible for, starting with the 2010 tax cycle. "They're happy about the fact that there are credits there to offset costs involved for them," he says. "Very small business hasn't been able to afford health care for its employees."

Though "the jury is still out" for the Draper business community about the overall legislation, he says most of his members "look forward to some reform." Rappleye adds that he personally feels adamant that reform shouldn't be overturned. "Hopefully they don't throw the whole thing out—and this is coming from a Republican...I don't believe we're in a place in this country where we're just going to throw people in the street and let them die. We have to have some sort of safety net."

On the other side of the country, Carl Hum, the president of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce in New York, voices similar sentiments. While the group's individual members are still uncertain about the ultimate impact of the legislation on their businesses, they agree with many of the underlying principles of the Democratic legislation, Hum says: "A lot of the small business community supports the idea that everybody should have health insurance. This is a basic need for everybody."

Just the same, Hum still shares some of the conservative criticisms of reform, arguing that some of the insurance regulations that have gone into effect immediately have forced insurance companies to raise their premiums. (Reform supporters deny that there's a direct link between the two.) But Hum stresses that such concerns are likely to fade over time. "That's a bit of a hiccup, a bump—whatever you want to call it—in affordability. In the long run, I think the business community will be supportive of the reform act." Like many other small-business leaders, Hum held out hope that the state-based insurance exchanges, which will begin in 2014, would help small businesses become better equipped to access and afford health insurance for their employees.

Even branches of the Chamber of Commerce that are more openly dissatisfied with Democratic reform don't run as far to the right as the national organization. Salt Lake City's branch, for instance, has slammed the legislation for failing to control costs—one of the major Republican criticisms of the legislation. Yet at the same time, the group has broken from the GOP party line by emphasizing some of the positive aspects of reform, as well as its desire to improve the legislation, rather than shredding it. When asked whether the Salt Lake Chamber opposed federal reform as a whole, spokesman Marty Carpenter declined to answer the question directly: He referred Mother Jones to principles outlined on the group's website to get a sense of "where we felt they hit and missed it" and stressed that the Salt Lake Chamber supported "continuing to work to better that legislation."

Such local business leaders point out that that the national Chamber doesn't speak for them on every issue. The Chamber's support for repeal "doesn't mean we're always in lockstep with them on everything—their position doesn't control our vote," says Carpenter, noting that the Salt Lake Chamber hasn't taken a formal position on repeal. Similarly, Brooklyn's Hum says: "In any family, we're going to have our disagreements."

The Chamber, meanwhile, denies that there is any discord among its members on health care. "There is no disagreement," says Blair Latoff, the US Chamber's director of communications. "Everyone supports health reform." The Chamber and its members, she adds, just don't support the Democrats' "flawed and irresponsible" approach to it.

But there's no denying the divergence of views within the Chamber's ranks on health care. It's just the latest reminder of the gulf between the Chamber's unapologetically conservative views and those of the small businesses that it purports to represent. Though the Chamber portrays itself as the country's leading voice on Main Street, one glance at the national organization's donor base and leadership show an organization dominated by major corporations.

As Mother Jones has reported, the Chamber "claims that 96 percent of its members are small businesses, yet its self-selected board includes just 6 representatives from small businesses, 1 from a local chamber, and 111 from large corporations." What's more, the national organization has been predominantly bankrolled by just a small fraction of its members—most of them megacorporations.

As a result, the diversity of views within the business community has often been stifled, with deep-pocketed groups like the US Chamber dominating the national debate. In response, alternative small business associations and lobbying organizations have emerged in an effort to give voice to dissenting perspectives—and they've put health care reform front and center. The Seattle-based Main Street Alliance launched in 2008 to change the view that "small businesses are uniformly conservative." The organization is now working in 13 states to educate its constituency about the legislation. Similarly, the Small Business Majority—a pro-business San Francisco organization headed up by an Internet entrepreneur who'ss donated to Democrats—has tried to push the pro-reform message by partnering up with liberal advocates.

Moreover, as more of the major pieces of reform begin to take hold, small businesses are likely to become increasingly concerned about how reform will affect them—and how they can best use the existing legislation to their benefit rather than overturning it. As such, they may become more vocal about breaking away from the national Chamber's hard-line opposition to the federal health care reform—and encourage a more pragmatic approach to tweaking the law within the business community.

Even within the Draper branch itself, views on health reform have run the gamut from criticism to full-fledged support. Each member of the local Chamber has "to know what their stake is—each one of them is going to have their own opinion," says Rappleye. In fact, he adds, Draper's Chamber of Commerce "used to have a slogan—'The United Voice of Business.' It was one of the first we got rid of, because it's not really accurate. You can't really say everybody's for [health reform] or against it."

* The original version of this story stated incorrectly that Nike and Johnson & Johnson had quit the Chamber of Commerce. Nike left the Chamber's board, but remains a member of the organization. Johnson & Johnson criticized the Chamber's position on climate change, but also remains part of the group.

Get Mother Jones by Email - Free. Like what you're reading? Get the best of MoJo three times a week.