I. Meet America's business cheerleaders.
People tend to view the Chamber of Commerce in the same light as the Rotary Club or the Knights of Columbus: officious do-gooders lending a helpful hand in the name of economy and country. It's a largely accurate assessment - at least on the local level.
In Davenport, Iowa, it means hosting music festivals like River Roots Live, a "quality-of-life initiative" that brings 30,000 people downtown each year, says Jennifer Walker of the Quad Cities chamber.
In Largo, Fla., it means introducing the small and struggling to the guys with all the money. "They want to meet heads of the hospitals, heads of the banks, so they can generate business from one another," says the president of that city's chamber, Tom Morrissette.
In Pasadena, it means pushing a business agenda without the sectarian shrieking of Washington. "We can still go for a beer after work and talk about our kids," chamber president Paul Little says.
These are sainted duties. Local chambers chiefly represent small businesses, which collectively are the nation's largest and most stable employer. After all, the florist and the restaurateur are more likely to sponsor a softball team than to ship their jobs to Indonesia. Neither is prone to demand public welfare under threat of bolting for Tennessee.
The local chambers are their cheerleaders, providing mercantile expertise with a cheerful disposition built to illuminate the possible.
But that reputation is being smeared by their national umbrella group, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It has quietly become the baddest bully in Washington. And its behavior is causing dozens of locals - and some of America's most prominent companies - to flee its ranks.
II. Now meet their weird Uncle Ed, who's ruining the family name.
Think of the U.S. Chamber as your crazy Uncle Ed. He spent too much time listening to talk radio, developed a raging victim complex and came to believe that the country was being destroyed by sloth and moochery. So he formed a lobbying group to defend the one true antidote: free enterprise.
Over the past century, the U.S. Chamber has sounded a lot like Ed when he's surrounded by a battalion of vanquished Budweisers.
The national organization was against America's rush to stop Hitler in World War II. It called Franklin Roosevelt's remedies for the Great Depression, among them Social Security, an attempt to "Sovietize" America. After the war, it cheered on Joe McCarthy's hunt for imaginary Commies.
More recently, the U.S. Chamber fought against civil rights, the federal Americans With Disabilities Act and safeguards for gays and lesbians. At one point, it even championed the need to discriminate against pregnant employees.
The Chamber is against workplace safety, regulating pollution, paid family leave and banning chemicals that cause birth defects.
The group's guiding principle: If it might help regular people, the Chamber considers it heresy. Free enterprise should be absolutely free, this logic goes, even if it turns the country into Rwanda with nicer Burger Kings. Anything less is an outrage.
"They've been on the wrong side of every issue in U.S. history," says Auden Schendler, a vice president at Aspen Skiing Company, who pushed his city's chamber to leave the national group.
Still, up until 1997, the U.S. Chamber enjoyed bipartisan respect in Washington. It was viewed as the "official voice of business," capable of playing amicably with others. But it was losing members, money and effectiveness.
That year, Tom Donohue became its new CEO. If the old Chamber was crazy Uncle Ed, Donohue's version would be Sean Hannity on steroids and meth, with a monster war chest and a prime-time audience.
III. The Big Gorilla gets a pocketful of money.
Donohue, the former head of a trucking trade group, instinctively understood Washington's unofficial law - namely, if you dole out millions of dollars to punctuate each sentence, suddenly you don't sound that weird anymore.
So he traveled the country, grubbing donations from the largest companies. His goal, as he wrote at the time, was to "build the biggest gorilla in this town."
And he did.
In 1997, the year that Donohue arrived, the Chamber spent $17 million on lobbying. Today that figure approaches $140 million annually, three times the purse of the next-biggest congressional manipulator, the National Association of Realtors.
"They're kind of the poster child for how big business and the super-rich are able to control the agenda in Washington," says Jake Parent, who runs the U.S. Chamber Watch website at Public Citizen, a D.C. consumer group with 250,000 members.
Officially, the U.S. Chamber still fancies itself the "voice of American business," a town crier advocating for small government, less regulation and the miracle cure of free enterprise. "We passionately believe it's time to stop apologizing for the one system in our society that actually works," Donohue said in his annual "State of American Business" speech in 2012.
But to raise the millions needed for his lobbying efforts, he had to beg from the only people with millions to give: America's mightiest corporations. And they, quite naturally, wanted a return on their investment.
Soon the U.S. Chamber began sounding less like the apostle of free markets and more like the official welfare agency of the golden-parachute set. Donohue called for drastic cuts to social programs. But he also wanted taxpayers to bail out BP after its Gulf oil spill, defended the oil industry's $12 billion annual welfare package, and was outworked by no one in protecting Wall Street banks from "too big to fail" laws.
"The Chamber isn't really antigovernment," says Damon Silvers, policy director of the AFL-CIO, a federation of some of the nation's largest unions. "They just want the government to be subordinate to big business."
(The group isn't keen on discussing such contradictions. Spokeswoman Blair Latoff Holmes asked that questions be submitted in writing but never responded to them.)
Even chamber members understand that small merchants have been sidelined. "We try to help small businesses grow, and the U.S. Chamber is more big business," says Mark Jaffe, president of the Greater New York chapter.
This wouldn't be a problem if Donohue and company would stay in Washington. The trouble usually begins when they take their show on the road. After all, if you're fighting against things such as equal pay for women or rules on dumping hazardous waste, you need a sugary helping of deceit to make it edible in the heartland.
And that's when the local chambers rebel.
IV. Honesty may be the best policy, but what does that have to do with politics?
During the last national elections, some 40 local chambers were forced to publicly distance themselves from the national group. That's because the U.S. Chamber prefers to speak by attack ad when it arrives in the hinterlands.
Stylistically, the TV ads are the same ham-fisted productions found in most campaigns. Ominous music. Voice-overs predicting doom. A simpleton's message impugning character. Senator Bill Swenson: He's impolite to his mother.
What sets the U.S. Chamber apart is its consistent - even comical - level of deceit.
Go ahead - run a search for "U.S. Chamber" at FactCheck.org
, a nonpartisan group that researches political ads for their veracity. The group has written about so many Chamber ads deemed false or misleading that it could sue for carpal tunnel damage.
In Florida, the U.S. Chamber ran one TV ad claiming that Democratic U.S. Senator Bill Nelson voted to cut $500 billion from Medicare to fund Obamacare. The assertion was widely debunked, but that didn't stop the Chamber from running the ad 2,599 times to terrify the state's elderly.
In Ohio, it ran another attack ad 5,515 times, this time claiming that U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown voted to raise energy taxes. Brown actually voted to phase out a $12 billion annual welfare package to the hyper-profitable oil industry, something that even conservative Ohioans probably would applaud.
"They're certainly one of the worst," says Justin Barasky, communications director for the Brown campaign. "You can usually bet good money that they're misleading at best, ridiculously false at worst and often offensive."
The Chamber created its biggest fury in Montana, a small-population state where politics operate on a first-name basis. The locals mutinied.