Thomas Donohue is not one for sweet talk. No sooner had he been named president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 1997 than he promised to “make life miserable” for Bill Archer, a powerful member of Congress. In the next breath, he suggested that John Sweeney, the union leader, needed to be punched in the mouth.
Nor does Donohue show much deference to the current president of the United States. The chamber’s headquarters sit across Lafayette Square from the White House, and in May 2010, with unemployment near 10 percent, Donohue festooned the building’s grand, Corinthian-columned facade with four banners spelling J-O-B-S in red, white and blue block letters, each 23 feet, 4 inches high.
Three years later, the banners are still up. During a recent interview in his office, an expansive suite with black walnut paneling, Donohue offered a blunt explanation for why he hung the sign facing President Obama’s home.
“So he’d have to look at it every day,” he said, lowering his voice to a theatrical growl.
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That the head of the chamber would openly relish needling the president of the United States speaks to the wholesale transformation that this 101-year-old trade association has undergone on Donohue’s very aggressive watch.
Over the past 16 years, Donohue has used his considerable talent for fundraising to build the once-struggling chamber into a free-enterprise research outfit, Supreme Court advocacy group and lobbying powerhouse.
The chamber’s lobbying operation alone spent $136 million last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics; the next-biggest spender, the National Association of Realtors, spent less than a third of that.
At 74, with his Kennedyesque mop of white hair and a Brooklyn accent, Donohue comes off as part street fighter, part showman and part head of state.
He zips around town in a chauffeured Lincoln and flies around the globe in leased private jets. His salary, $4.9 million in 2011, makes him the second-highest-paid trade-association chief in Washington, after the head of the Edison Electric Institute, according to CEO Update, a trade magazine.
“He’s got a little theater in him,” Billy Tauzin, a former Louisiana congressman and a onetime amateur actor, says of Donohue.
“He’s like the Energizer Bunny,” said John Bachmann, senior partner at Edward Jones and the past chairman and current treasurer of the chamber’s board, calling Donohue’s salary a “bargain.”
Yet, while increasing the group’s influence, Donohue has also plunged the business lobby into partisan politics.
The chamber spent millions in an unsuccessful bid to wrest the Senate from Democrats; of 12 chamber-backed Republicans, nine lost.
But Donohue has always been a man of big ambitions, and his latest is to secure an immigration overhaul, long a priority for business.
A deal he cut with Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, on a new visa program for low-skilled workers helped produce a bill that passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in May.
Immigration is one issue, at least, on which the chamber and the Obama administration might come together.
It is now up to Donohue to deliver. And while he waves off talk of retirement — “If you see me in a box with flowers around it, I’m only thinking about retiring” — there is no question that an immigration bill could be a legacy item, a capstone to his long career.
While big, wealthy companies help keep the chamber afloat — “We have to raise $5 million a week to run this place,” Donohue says — advocating for small business is perhaps more popular with the public. So one morning in April, Donohue could be found holding court at America’s Small Business Summit, the chamber’s annual gathering for small-business owners, who come to network and lobby their lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Like all things Donohue-related, the meeting was a slick production, with hefty corporate support and Washington-insider speakers like Michael Hayden, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and Bob Woodward, The Washington Post journalist. In the exhibit hall, representatives of T-Mobile and FedEx handed out trinkets.
Donohue used his keynote address to exhort the audience to “defend and advance a free-enterprise system” whenever it “comes under attack” and to give politicians in Washington — the words “Republican” and “Democrat” never pass his lips — a piece of their minds.
“It’s about time,” he thundered, “that our leaders in Washington start making the tough decisions that we pay them to make!”
The talk was business-lobby boilerplate, if delivered with dramatic flair. Yet Donohue is a surprising missionary for the free-market message in at least one way: He has little experience working in for-profit businesses.
Born in Brooklyn, he grew up, largely, in Rockville Centre, N.Y., where his parents moved amid the post-World War II housing boom. His father was a factory manager for American Can; his mother was frail and sickly from a childhood illness. As a boy, Donohue suffered rheumatic fever and spent most of the second grade at home. Reading was a challenge; he says he is “a little dyslexic.”
He came by his free-market views as a teenager, through hard work, he said. He delivered meat for a butcher shop, mowed lawns, worked for a pharmacy and ferried bottles of liquor to Wall Street. He put himself through St. John’s University in Queens and later got an MBA at Adelphi University while working for the Boy Scouts.
He went on to pursue a seemingly unrelated string of jobs, working for a disability-rights advocacy group, as a university fundraiser and at the Postal Service. There, he tangled with unions and eventually rose to deputy assistant postmaster general — a job that took him to the capital, where he began his ascent as a Washington player.
In 1984, after a stint running membership and grass-roots operations for the chamber, Donohue landed his first big Washington lobbying job, as president and chief executive of the American Trucking Associations, which had been hobbled by a string of legislative defeats. Colleagues remember him as endlessly energetic, especially when it came to raising money.
“We called him the White Tornado,” said Lana Batts, a former association lobbyist.
When Donohue was hired at the chamber in 1997, it was in desperate need of a fix-it man. The organization was bleeding money and members, and losing political influence over its embrace of parts of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s health-care bill. Other, more focused business lobbies were making incursions onto the chamber’s turf.
“My first objective here was to save the place as we knew it,” Donohue said.
He traveled the country, seeking to bolster membership and the budget, which has since quintupled, his aides say. And he vowed to make trouble for traditional adversaries like trial lawyers, environmentalists and union leaders.
Today, Donohue presides over a $250-million-a-year operation, where roughly 500 employees — a small army of lobbyists, analysts, economists, lawyers and communications gurus — devote themselves to carrying out his vision for a more pro-business government.
Since Obama took office, Donohue’s army has mobilized against the president’s health-care overhaul, his financial regulatory overhaul, his energy policy and his new consumer-protection agency — although it did help to pass Obama’s financial stimulus package. Often, the chamber is more aggressive than the individual companies in its membership.
“The Donohue chamber is in full-time attack mode,” said Robert Weissman, who runs the liberal advocacy group Public Citizen. “From their point of view they’ve been very aggressive in advancing the interests of their constituents. From our point of view, they have very aggressively expanded the corporate grip over policymaking in Washington, D.C.”