Person

Tom Donohue

Role:

Former President and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Born:

1938

Tom Donohue was the longtime president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce of the United States of America and the first individual to hold both titles concurrently. In 2019, he was succeeded by Suzanne Clark as president, and in 2021, Clark succeeded him as CEO.

Donohue was a controversial leader who drove the Chamber to be more politically aggressive and conservative, most notably by opposing increased government control over healthcare and environmental policy. Under his tenure, the Chamber’s funding and expenditures increased dramatically, with the Chamber becoming the largest lobbying group in the United States. Newly appointed Chamber president Clark is considered to be a close ally of Donohue and is expected to continue his policies.[1]

In the 2020 election, likely due to animosity toward President Donald Trump, Donohue and the Chamber reportedly co-led a bipartisan arrangement with the AFL-CIO labor union federation to ensure that the election results would be upheld in the case of a Trump defeat.

Early Life and Education

Tom Donohue was born in 1938 in Brooklyn, New York. His father was a factory manager, and his mother was a housewife. Donohue struggled in school due to dyslexia and missed half of second grade because of an illness. As a teenager, Donohue worked at a butcher shop, worked a pharmacy, mowed lawns, and shipped liquor. Donohue paid for his tuition at St. John’s University in Queens, and later earned a master’s in business administration from Adelphi University.[2][3]

Career

In fourth grade, Donohue joined the Boy Scouts of America. He helped construct a new camp in upstate New York and regularly volunteered there. In his first job after college, Donohue worked as an executive for the Boy Scouts, learning fundraising and general management skills that he applied throughout his career. In 2016, Donohue earned a lifetime achievement award from the Boy Scouts.[4]

Donohue left the Boy Scouts to work for Abilities Inc., a company which trains physically disabled individuals for the workforce. He later worked as vice president of development at Fairfield University and worked for the U.S. Postal Service, where he worked his way up to Deputy Assistant Postmaster General.[5]

After his first stint at the Chamber of Commerce from 1976-1984, Donohue became president of the American Trucking Association, where he oversaw a major expansion in fundraising and lobbying expenditures. A Trucking Association lobbyist commented that Donohue employed aggressive tactics and that trucking companies were afraid withhold donations out of fear that Donohue might turn the ATA’s lobbying apparatus against them.[6]

Upon leaving the ATA in 1997, Donohue’s successor launched an investigation into its finances on suspicion that Donohue had committed fraud and embezzlement, though the ATA filed no formal complaints or charges.[7]

U.S. Chamber of Commerce

In 1976, Tom Donahue was hired by the Chamber of Commerce of the United States of America to work in the development department. He aggressively took on additional projects and pushed for the organization to support President Ronald Reagan. Donohue left the chamber in 1984 to run the  American Trucking Association.[8]

In 1997, the Chamber tapped Donohue to become the new president and CEO due to his work with the Trucking Association. According to journalist John Schultz, Donohue asked Scultz to publish a story about him turning down the job as a negotiation tactic to secure higher pay.[9]

Donohue’s leadership of the Chamber marked a decisive shift in the organization’s goals and tactics, making it more conservative and politically assertive.[10] Annual lobbying expenditure increased from $17 million in 1998 to $81.9 million in 2020, peaking at $144.6 million in 2009, making the Chamber the biggest lobbying group in the United States. Annual political contributions by the Chamber and its employees increased from $3,810 in the 1996 election cycle, to $906,181 in 2020, peaking at $3.2 million in 2004. These political contributions went to Republicans 70-90% of the time, peaking at 99.6% in 2014.[11] [12]

Donohue quickly realigned the Chamber with the Republican Party by reversing the organization’s support for government-controlled universal health care programs to instead support free-market health care policies. The Chamber also opposed many domestic and international environmentalist efforts, including the Kyoto Protocol and Paris Accords. This position caused many major companies to leave the Chamber, including Apple, Starbucks, Unilever, Costco, and General Mills. In 2009, Nike left the Chamber’s board and issued a public statement condemning its stance on climate change, but the company nonetheless remained a member of the Chamber.[13] [14]

In 2004, the Chamber successfully sued the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to overturn a rule which required mutual funds to maintain boards with 75% of their members independent from invested entities.[15]

In 2009, in response to the Chamber’s policies on climate change and healthcare, left-wing radical activist group Velvet Revolution posted a $100,000 bounty for anyone to reveal information that would lead Donohue’s arrest and conviction on any charges. The bounty was later increased to $200,000, but it was never claimed.[16]

The Chamber under Donahue opposed much of the Obama administration’s agenda, particularly the Affordable Care Act, the Dodd-Frank Act, and the establishment of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). President Obama criticized the Chamber for allegedly spreading misinformation through ads targeting the CFPB. In October 2009, the Chamber announced a $100 million campaign to promote free market policies.[17] In 2012, the Chamber and three other industry groups sued the SEC for implementing a section of the Dodd-Frank Act which required natural resource companies to publicly disclose all payments of $100,000 or more to domestic or foreign governments.[18] The Chamber supported President Obama’s 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which most Republicans opposed.[19]

The Chamber had a mixed relationship with President Donald Trump. Shortly after the 2016 election, President Trump refused to shake a top Chamber advisor’s hand, claiming, “You guys did everything to stop me, I haven’t forgotten.”[20] The Hill called the Chamber “the big loser” of the 2016 election for not supporting President Trump’s campaign.[21] During the Trump administration the Chamber generally supported President Trump’s measures to deregulate the economy, but opposed his protectionist trade policies and stance on immigration. In 2017, the Chamber publicly opposed President Trump’s executive order ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.[22][23]

In January 2021, after the storming of the Capitol by supporters of President Trump, Donahue called the president’s behavior “inexcusable” and said the Chamber was open to supporting the removal of President Trump from office with the 25th Amendment. Another Chamber official said the organization would limit donations to U.S. Representatives who voted against President Trump’s second impeachment.[24]

At least as of 2010, Donohue served on the boards of many of the Chamber’s top donors, including Union Pacific, which gave the Chamber $500,000 from 2006-2010.[25]

In 2019, Donohue was succeeded as president by Suzanne P. Clark, who started working at the Chamber in 1997 as an aide to Donohue. Donohue then stepped down from his role as CEO in February 2021 so that Clark could fill the role. Donohue intended to stay as CEO for another year, but once the Chamber board named Clark as his successor, he left early.[26]

On February 4, 2021, Time reported that dozens of major corporations, advocacy groups, electoral officials, and other influential individuals on the left and right engaged in a “conspiracy” to ensure that President Trump would accept the election results if defeated. The “pact” was led by the Chamber and the AFL-CIO, though the concept was originally envisioned by Michael Podhorzer, the political director of the AFL-CIO. The coalition consisted of mainly left-of-center organizations, including Planned Parenthood, Greenpeace, Indivisible Civics, Moveon.org, the Protect Democracy Project, the Working Families Party, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Voting Rights Lab, and the National Council on Election Integrity.[27]

On election day in 2020, Donohue and AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka released a joint statement calling for trust in the electoral process. Behind the scenes, the two groups coordinated efforts to ensure high voting rates and electoral transparency, including overhauling the American voting process for the COVID-19 pandemic by promoting absentee ballots, encouraging the use of mail-in ballots, and providing equipment for polling sanitation. The group also encouraged technology companies to increase moderation of digital content to prevent the spread of alleged misinformation and promoted get-out-the-vote campaigns.[28]

Criticism

In 2001, the Wall Street Journal accused the Chamber of Commerce of the United States of America under Tom Donohue of facilitating companies in anonymously lobbying for unpopular political policies. For instance, the Chamber supposedly led lobbying efforts to defeat a bill that would have tightened regulations on overseas corporate expansion at the behest of billionaire Qwest Diagnostics CEO Philip Anschutz. The Chamber even established special bank accounts to handle grants from particular companies, which then forwarded the funds to lobbying efforts. The Journal claimed this initiative was spearheaded by Donohue as a means of raising Chamber revenue.[29]

The left-wing Washington Monthly has also criticized Donohue for placing undue emphasis on fundraising and explicitly selling the organization’s policy priorities for donations. According to one source inside the Chamber, Donohue was fundamentally apolitical and pursued whatever policies would result in the most funding for the Chamber. He even allegedly took money from the federal government for the Chamber’s Center for International Private Enterprise.[30] The magazine reported that Donahue’s salary, which tripled between 1997 and the early 2010s, was mostly based on the Chamber’s revenue.[31]

The Chamber under Donohue’s leadership has been criticized for lobbying too aggressively and jeopardizing a more cooperative relationship between businesses and Congress. Hilary Rosen, the Democratic lobbyist and former CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), accused the Chamber under Donohue of becoming a “brick wall to government action.”[32]

References

  1. Cirilli, Corynne. “The US Chamber of Commerce Might Not Be What You Think.” Racked.com. October 2, 2017. Accessed February 12, 2021. https://www.racked.com/2017/10/2/16370014/us-chamber-commerce-explainer. ^
  2. Stolberg, Sheryl Gay. “Pugnacious Builder of the Business Lobby.” New York Times. June 1, 2013. Accessed February 13, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/02/business/how-tom-donohue-transformed-the-us-chamber-of-commerce.html?_r=1. ^
  3. “Thomas J. Donohue.” Horatio Alger Association. Accessed February 13, 2021. https://horatioalger.org/members/member-detail/thomas-j-donohue. ^
  4. “Thomas J. Donohue.” Horatio Alger Association. Accessed February 13, 2021. https://horatioalger.org/members/member-detail/thomas-j-donohue. ^
  5. “Thomas J. Donohue.” Horatio Alger Association. Accessed February 13, 2021. https://horatioalger.org/members/member-detail/thomas-j-donohue. ^
  6. “Thomas J. Donohue.” Horatio Alger Association. Accessed February 13, 2021. https://horatioalger.org/members/member-detail/thomas-j-donohue. ^
  7. Verini, James. “Show Him the Money.” Washington Monthly. Accessed February 12, 2021. https://web.archive.org/web/20160403182230/http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2010/1007.verini.html. ^
  8. Verini, James. “Show Him the Money.” Washington Monthly. Accessed February 12, 2021. https://web.archive.org/web/20160403182230/http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2010/1007.verini.html. ^
  9. “Thomas J. Donohue.” Horatio Alger Association. Accessed February 13, 2021. https://horatioalger.org/members/member-detail/thomas-j-donohue. ^
  10. Cirilli, Corynne. “The US Chamber of Commerce Might Not Be What You Think.” Racked.com. October 2, 2017. Accessed February 12, 2021. https://www.racked.com/2017/10/2/16370014/us-chamber-commerce-explainer. ^
  11. “Contributions by Party of Recipient.” Open Secrets. Accessed February 11, 2021. https://www.opensecrets.org/orgs/us-chamber-of-commerce/totals?id=D000019798. ^
  12. “Annual Lobbying Totals: 1998-2020.” Open Secrets. Accessed February 11, 2021. https://www.opensecrets.org/orgs/us-chamber-of-commerce/lobbying?id=D000019798. ^
  13. Cirilli, Corynne. “The US Chamber of Commerce Might Not Be What You Think.” Racked.com. October 2, 2017. Accessed February 12, 2021. https://www.racked.com/2017/10/2/16370014/us-chamber-commerce-explainer. ^
  14. Verini, James. “Show Him the Money.” Washington Monthly. Accessed February 12, 2021. https://web.archive.org/web/20160403182230/http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2010/1007.verini.html. ^
  15. Stier, Ken. “Is the Chamber of Commerce Its Own Worst Enemy.” Time. October 31, 2009. Accessed February 12, 2021. http://content.time.com/time/business/article/0,8599,1932979,00.html. ^
  16. Berger, Judson. “Activist Group Puts Bounty on Chamber of Commerce CEO.” Fox News. December 7, 2009. Accessed February 12, 2021. https://www.foxnews.com/politics/activist-group-puts-bounty-on-chamber-of-commerce-ceo. ^
  17. Stier, Ken. “Is the Chamber of Commerce Its Own Worst Enemy.” Time. October 31, 2009. Accessed February 12, 2021. http://content.time.com/time/business/article/0,8599,1932979,00.html. ^
  18. Lehr, Amy K. “U.S. Chamber of Commerce Sues SEC to Overturn Extractive Industry Transparency Rule.” JD Supra. October 25, 2012. Accessed February 12, 2021. https://www.jdsupra.com/legalnews/us-chamber-of-commerce-sues-sec-to-ove-57156/. ^
  19. Verini, James. “Show Him the Money.” Washington Monthly. Accessed February 12, 2021. https://web.archive.org/web/20160403182230/http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2010/1007.verini.html. ^
  20. Mullins, Brody; Leary, Alex. “Washington’s Biggest Lobbyist, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Gets Shut Out.” Wall Street Journal. May 2, 2019. Accessed February 15, 2021. https://www.wsj.com/articles/washingtons-biggest-lobbyist-the-u-s-chamber-of-commerce-gets-shut-out-11556812302. ^
  21. Riedel, Chris. “US Chamber of Commerce the big loser of the presidential election.” The Hill. December 20, 2016. Accessed February 15, 2021. https://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/lobbying-world/311188-us-chamber-of-commerce-the-big-loser-of-presidential. ^
  22. Wilson, Meagan R.; Breland, Ali. “Business backlash hits Trump’s DACA decision.” The Hill. September 5, 2017. Accessed February 12, 2021. https://thehill.com/business-a-lobbying/business-a-lobbying/349270-business-backlash-hits-trumps-daca-decision. ^
  23. Rappeport, Alan. “Chamber of Commerce Calls Trump’s Conduct ‘Inexcusable’ and Vows to Curb Certain Donations.” New York Times. January 12, 2021. Accessed February 12, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/12/us/chamber-of-commerce-trump.html ^
  24. Rappeport, Alan. “Chamber of Commerce Calls Trump’s Conduct ‘Inexcusable’ and Vows to Curb Certain Donations.” New York Times. January 12, 2021. Accessed February 12, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/12/us/chamber-of-commerce-trump.html ^
  25. Harkinson, Josh. “Fact-Checking the US Chamber of Commerce.” Mother Jones. January/February 2020. Accessed February 12, 2021. https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2010/01/fact-checking-chamber-commerce-tom-donohue/. ^
  26. Mullins, Brody. “U.S. Chamber’s Thomas Donohue to Step Down in Favor of Suzanne Clark.” Wall Street Journal. February 5, 2021. Accessed February 12, 2021. https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-chamber-of-commerce-ceo-thomas-donohue-to-step-down-11612566411.   ^
  27. Ball, Molly. “The Secret History of the Shadow Campaign That Saved the 2020 Election.” Time. February 4, 2021. Accessed February 15, 2021. https://time.com/5936036/secret-2020-election-campaign/. ^
  28. Ball, Molly. “The Secret History of the Shadow Campaign That Saved the 2020 Election.” Time. February 4, 2021. Accessed February 15, 2021. https://time.com/5936036/secret-2020-election-campaign/. ^
  29. VandeHei, Jim. “Business Lobby Recovers Its Clout By Dispensing Favors for Members.” Wall Street Journal. September 11, 2001. Accessed February 12, 2021. https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB100015411979219346. ^
  30. Verini, James. “Show Him the Money.” Washington Monthly. Accessed February 12, 2021. https://web.archive.org/web/20160403182230/http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2010/1007.verini.html. ^
  31. Verini, James. “Show Him the Money.” Washington Monthly. Accessed February 12, 2021. https://web.archive.org/web/20160403182230/http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2010/1007.verini.html. ^
  32. Stier, Ken. “Is the Chamber of Commerce Its Own Worst Enemy.” Time. October 31, 2009. Accessed February 12, 2021. http://content.time.com/time/business/article/0,8599,1932979,00.html. ^

Connected Organizations

  1. Chamber of Commerce of the United States of America (Non-profit)
    Former President and CEO
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