By Zayida Baker

The top-down dynamic of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce mirrors that of the federal government that it lobbies. This has affected its relationship with local chambers and with freshman Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla.

Southerland is former chairman of the Bay County Chamber of Commerce. In his discussion of the national chamber, featured in the first part of this article, he spoke pointedly of the “U.S.” or “United States Chamber,” since he knows well the difference between it and the local chambers. Overall, he believes that local chambers serve small business much more than the U.S. Chamber does.

Carol Roberts, president and CEO of the Bay Chamber, and Shane Moody, president and CEO of the Destin Area Chamber, disagree in their opinions of the U.S. Chamber, but both make sure to distinguish their chambers from the U.S. Chamber, and both lead groups that have recently let their memberships in the U.S. Chamber expire.

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EDITOR’S NOTE _ This is the second article in a two-part series on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Read the first part here.
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Notably, the U.S. Chamber’s website does not much emphasize the local chambers as an influential, formal, or even informal source of input for its policies. It focuses on its own national-level committees, programs and affiliates, in which only certain local representatives participate.

Moody serves on the chamber’s Committee of 100, which the U.S. Chamber describes as an invitation-only representative body of elites, and was an instructor for the U.S. Chamber’s Institute for Organization Management. Thus he is closer to management and has greater access than most heads of local chambers. Despite a formal break with the U.S. Chamber, he retains close ties to its regional director and others he knew over the years. He does not see policy differences as particularly endemic to the national-versus-local dynamic. He said, “If an issue or a policy is good for business, then it’s good for business,” and even local chambers often disagree with each other.

“Conference calls, e-mail response, [and] survey response” provide opportunities for local input.

He explained carefully, “I wouldn’t say that we were ever at odds with the U.S. Chamber or with the state chamber, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we agree with every position they take.” Like Roberts, he occasionally takes flak from members who blame local chambers for the U.S. Chamber’s policies. Unlike her, he rejected the notion that local chambers represent small business better.

However, the Destin Chamber let its membership in the U.S. Chamber lapse a few months ago, Moody said, to cut costs. “Their role is totally different from ours. . . . While our main goal is local business development, their main goal is to lobby for pro-business legislation and to oppose legislation that is bad for business.”

Roberts was blunter and more critical about a parting of ways with the U.S. Chamber: “I have to be perfectly honest. I’ve quit looking at their agenda. We make our own decisions here.” She does not think that most local chambers are members of the U.S. Chamber.

Yet the Bay Chamber and the Destin Chamber still belong to the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Association of Chamber Professionals (FACP), and participate in the Northwest Florida Chamber Coalition, an informal affiliation of 16 chambers in the Panhandle region. Moody recently chaired the FACP, and Roberts is on its board of directors.

While not faulting the U.S. Chamber, Moody explained that FACP and the Florida Chamber are more useful to the Destin Chamber because “No voices are heard anymore in national politics, and we still have a strong voice at the state level and the local level. As a chamber our size, I think that we can affect state legislation a lot more effectively than we can affect national legislation.”

This feeling of voicelessness among some of its members clashes with the U.S. Chamber’s predominance as the richest and largest lobbying outfit in the country. (It spent over $132 million in 2010 alone.) The additional implication that size—whether of the local chamber or its constituent businesses—constrains a group’s viability at the U.S. Chamber is echoed by Roberts, Southerland, and others.

Moody also thinks that “State legislation affects us a whole lot more than federal.” He and Roberts plan to work with FACP and the Florida Chamber to oppose numeric-nutrient and fishing regulations, which are federal issues that the state chamber can help with.

Slade O’Brien, director of the Florida chapter of Americans for Prosperity, acknowledged that the U.S. Chamber is “a very good and very efficient trade organization” but added, “Your local chamber really is local. It’s smaller businesses for the most part. It’s probably a greater cross-section of people, whereas the U.S. Chamber” seems to emphasize “Fortune 500 type of companies.”

Derrell Day is host of Panama City’s morning show on Talk Radio 101.1 FM and president of the nonpartisan group Bay Patriots, which he founded with Southerland in 2008 to educate the public on the Constitution. He lent a familiar tea-party perspective to the chambers’ disagreements with this comparison: “It’s the difference between local government and central planners in Washington, D.C. Local government is far more responsive and understands the ins and outs of local problems far more.”

Day praised Southerland, who has had his own conflicts with the U.S. Chamber, for “filter[ing] everything through the Constitution. I don’t believe that we could have anyone representing us with more integrity.”

The U.S. Chamber did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story.

You may wish to contact
Rep. Southerland: (202) 225-5235
U.S. Chamber of Commerce: (202) 659-6000

Zayida Baker covers Rep. Steve Southerland and Sen. Bill Nelson for Tea Party Patriots’ Government Accountability Project. She can be reached at zayida.baker@tppjournalism.org.