Jun 16, 2022 - Politics & Policy

House GOP welcomes a new Chamber, declares war against the old one

Kevin McCarthy, Jim Jordan and Jim Banks
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) with Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Jim Banks (R-Ind.). Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

House Republicans welcomed to the Capitol on Wednesday a new self-described "anti-woke" business lobbying group, amplifying their hostility toward the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and broader "environmental, social and corporate governance" (ESG) movement.

Why it matters: The U.S. Chamber used to wield enormous power within the GOP as the representative of business interests. But the country's largest lobbying group is now viewed with contempt across large swaths of the Republican Party.

  • House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) says he won't even meet with the group if he's speaker next year.
  • The GOP Senate Conference isn't nearly as hostile as the House. But several high-profile Republican senators, including Tom Cotton of Arkansas, have been publicly attacking the business lobby for months.

Driving the news: The Republican Study Committee, the largest group of conservatives in the House, invited leaders of the American Free Enterprise Chamber of Commerce, to lunch at the Capitol.

  • As Axios first reported, the group is positioning itself as an alternative to lobbies like the U.S. Chamber, which some Republicans charge have lurched left to appease Democrats amid a broader effort by corporate America to advocate on issues such as abortion, voting rights and racial justice.

Behind the scenes: The Republican Study Committee lunch conversation turned into a bashing session against the U.S. Chamber and corporate ESG.

  • RSC chairman Jim Banks (R-Ind.), who is close to McCarthy, introduced the new group's two leaders — its chairman, former Iowa governor and President Trump's ambassador to China, Terry Branstad, and its CEO Gentry Collins, a former political director of the Republican National Committee.
  • In his introductory remarks, Banks said he was "increasingly frustrated with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for supporting woke policies and enriching China."

Between the lines: Woke is a term used to refer to an awareness of broad injustices in society that conservatives are increasingly using as a pejorative to criticize liberal ideals.

Things only got worse for the Chamber from there as the lunch entered a question-and-answer session with Branstad and Collins.

  • Rep. Andy Barr (R-Ky.) described the corporate ESG movement as a "threat" to America that is "undermining American competitiveness" and said the U.S. Chamber "has been corrupted by woke thinking."
  • Barr told Branstad about his bill, the "Ensuring Sound Guidance (ESG) Act," which is part of a broader GOP legislative assault against green investing and other forms of socially responsible investment. Part of the GOP's goal is to get major investment firms to re-embrace fossil fuels.
  • "Amen — I agree with that," Branstad said of Barr's requirement that investment advisers prioritize financial returns over other issues such as sustainability.

Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio) told Branstad and Collins: "Thanks for organizing an actual American Chamber of Commerce versus this woke Chamber."

  • Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas) contended that the U.S. Chamber had opposed sufficiently securing the southern border and was "flooding our country with cheap labor ... basically taking jobs out of the hands of U.S. citizens."
  • "Where is this new Chamber going to stand on border security?" he asked.
  • Branstad replied they would "stand strong for border security."

Branstad was seen huddling with House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) at the end of the lunch and later met with McCarthy's staff.

  • Scalise's chief of staff, Brett Horton, said last year his office wanted nothing to do with the U.S. Chamber. "If the U.S. Chamber sent me a meeting request right now, I wouldn't even staff that meeting out to an intern, and I don't see that changing," Horton said.
  • The U.S. Chamber's executive vice president Neil Bradley is a former senior House GOP leadership staffer and executive director of the RSC.

The other side: In response to this reporting, a U.S. Chamber spokesman told Axios:

"Today, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was advocating for boosting domestic energy production and cutting tariffs to curb inflation, fighting taxes in the Senate, securing two business community wins at the Supreme Court, and ensuring pro-business champions like [South Carolina GOP] Rep. [Nancy] Mace return to Congress. So I am not sure what these people were referring to."

The bottom line: The Chamber has remained highly engaged in Washington in spite of its rocky relationship with Republican leadership.

  • The $19 million it spent on its federal lobbying operation in the first quarter of 2022 topped the list of all D.C. lobbying spenders, according to OpenSecrets.

Lachlan Markay contributed reporting.

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