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A Chat with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Chief

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

On Fridays, our business report focuses on money. Today, the power of money. Last night's House Vote for tax cuts was backed by an especially influential group. It's the US Chamber of Commerce, which spends tens of millions of dollars on lobbying. The president of the chamber is a man we're about to meet, Thomas J. Donohue. This year, Congress approved much of the group's agenda, including changes to bankruptcy laws and restrictions on class-action lawsuits. And after Donohue criticized corporate reforms arising from the Enron scandal, the chief enforcer of those reforms left the government.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It is no coincidence that the chamber's headquarters building overlooks the White House. When we visited there yesterday, we got a glimpse of Donohue at work. The white-haired chamber president was meeting with reporters and he concluded his opening statement with a note of cheerful combativeness.

Mr. THOMAS DONOHUE (President, US Chamber of Commerce): And having said all of that, I'll be glad to take any of your questions or enter any kind of argument you'd like to start on this subject. And you got to do one thing...

INSKEEP: Also yesterday, the chamber president sat down to talk with us.

Mr. DONOHUE: We are the largest lobbying spender in Washington. We've hired very able people from both parties. We're actively involved in the political process, all of which suggests to people in the Congress or in the White House or in the regulatory agencies, you know, at least we ought to listen to them.

INSKEEP: You've been very critical of the Securities and Exchange Commission. The chairmanship of the SEC recently changed. You've continued to raise questions about the SEC and its investigations of businesses. Why focus on them now?

Mr. DONOHUE: Well, first of all, you never heard me or the chamber be critical personally about the chairman of the SEC, past or present. Our concern is about the way Sarbanes-Oxley is being implemented by the SEC.

INSKEEP: Let's just clarify this for people who don't follow this every day. You're talking about a law that was passed after the Enron scandals...

Mr. DONOHUE: Right.

INSKEEP: ...and other scandals forcing new accounting rules on corporations and more disclosure and other rules.

Mr. DONOHUE: Well, it wasn't just that. It wasn't just that. You know, back in 1929 when we had the crash in the market, we then got the Securities Litigation Acts of '33 and '34. And I give the Congress and others a lot of credit then for letting things settle out, for giving a real serious thought about what they were going to do and then doing something very worthwhile. What we did here inside of the matter of what appeared a matter of days, we passed Sarbanes-Oxley. And there's not a person who wouldn't quietly tell you that we hustled on this a little too much and didn't think it through. And we have sued because they didn't ask anybody's opinion, they didn't give thoughtful consideration to the views of others. And then we sued on the Arthur Andersen deal.

INSKEEP: This is the case where Arthur Andersen was effectively driven out of business...

Mr. DONOHUE: Right.

INSKEEP: ...by a federal investigation, the accounting firm for Enron.

Mr. DONOHUE: That's exactly right--that had almost 100,000 employees all around the world, 99.9 percent of them didn't have a damn thing to do with Enron. Why am I worried about that? Am I worried about it because the accounting guys are our members? Of course not. I'm worried because if one more accounting firm goes under, the rest of them are going to stop doing corporate audits, and then where's the government? Are they going to audit 17,000 public companies? If they do, we all know they'll screw it up.

INSKEEP: Are your views on the SEC informed at all by the fact that you were on the board of a company that was investigated by the SEC, Qwest Communications...

Mr. DONOHUE: I understand that.

INSKEEP: ...that had to pay fines?

Mr. DONOHUE: Well, I'm on a number of public company boards. I'm no longer on that board. But the answer to your question is yes. I watched the process, but it isn't driving my decisions here. We have--you know, huge numbers of the Fortune 500 are members of ours, meaning, therefore, public companies.

INSKEEP: Well, did you feel you were unfairly investigated or that the tactics were in some way unfair?

Mr. DONOHUE: Well, I believe that there is a broad feeling in the business community that it is difficult to do what you'd like to do in an organized and thoughtful way and in a legal way because of the application of some of the rules and because of the behavior of enforcement people, both in the SEC and in the Justice Department. Nobody wants people that intentionally break the law to walk away without being punished. What we're simply saying is let's not put in place a whole series of rules and regulations that deny people the right to be heard or that unreasonably destroy institutions that took decades and decades to build.

INSKEEP: But were they unreasonable with Qwest in finding that Qwest had overstated its profits in the process?

Mr. DONOHUE: Well, that's a matter of opinion, but I'm not going to comment on that because that would be inappropriate as a former board member. You asked me one question that I did comment on...

INSKEEP: Well, whether they were fair is the question.

Mr. DONOHUE: Well, did I learn something watching this?

INSKEEP: Yeah.

Mr. DONOHUE: And the answer's yes.

INSKEEP: OK. Early in the year the chamber won what could be seen as significant victory. Bankruptcy legislation was passed after years of effort. There was...

Mr. DONOHUE: Class-action legislation.

INSKEEP: Class-action legislation was passed after years of effort...

Mr. DONOHUE: CAFTA.

INSKEEP: We could go on for some time...

Mr. DONOHUE: We've had a good year.

INSKEEP: Since then, President Bush's public standing has declined for a number of reasons; Congress' public standing has declined for a number of reasons. Has that made your job more difficult now?

Mr. DONOHUE: No. What I've told the people at the chamber, there's all sorts of excitement going on in the House, a lot of--half the Senate's talking about running for the president. The president of the United States has had his ups and downs. Of course the things you indicated are all going on in this town. They've been going on in this town, by the way, for a hundred years, up and down and up and down. And I've told our guys, `Look, don't get into that. Stay out of that conversation and go out and get something done along the margin and we'll be ahead of the game.'

INSKEEP: Mr. Donohue, thanks so much.

Mr. DONOHUE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Tom Donohue is president and CEO of the US Chamber of Commerce. We met him at his office here in Washington.

(Credits)

MONTAGNE: I'm Renee Montagne.

INSKEEP: And I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.