Let’s wake up to the Chamber’s horrors

June 26, 2023 6:00 am
A sign advertising the undeveloped Midway Business Park in Knox County, courtesy of the Knox County Development Corporation. (Photo: Mark Harmon)

A sign advertising the undeveloped Midway Business Park in Knox County, courtesy of the Knox County Development Corporation. (Photo: Mark Harmon)

In the eastern part of Knox County, Tennessee, the Midway Road exit off Interstate 40 takes you to a fascinating, and almost empty, business park. Perhaps one day it will house some significant operations, but currently (more than seven years after the Chamber of Commerce won a protracted battle with neighborhood groups over the zoning) little is here. Those groups mentioned that the planned location had serious problems with sinkholes, contributed to sprawl, and may end up with plenty of empty spaces such as other local business parks, one of which was converted to an actual trees and grass public park.

Knox County’s Development Corporation has a quite informative website to promote Midway Business Park. That site relays all the acres available and the nearness of the interstate and power substations. At present, however, Midway Road Business Park is an unintended monument to the power of one entity to dominate the land use decisions of our communities, often running roughshod over valid neighborhood concerns. That entity is the Chamber of Commerce.

The Chamber of Commerce likes to promote itself as civic-minded gathering of small local businesses, when in fact, it promotes an anti-regulatory agenda of low wages, no unionization, and weak consumer and environmental laws.

The most effective lobbying organization in the U.S.  hides in plain sight, and does a lot of harm (and rare moments of good) without nearly as much scrutiny as the National Rifle Association, the pharmaceutical powerhouses, or the fossil fuels industry.

Open Secrets compiled required public reports and relayed that in 2022 the U. S. Chamber of Commerce spent more than $81 million in lobbying, up from in excess of $66 million the preceding year. The Chamber spent the second largest amount in lobbying, slightly edged out by its friends in the National Association of Realtors. The third place in lobbying, big Pharma, trailed the big two by more than $50 million. When it comes to federal campaign donations, the Chamber in 2022 doled out more than $3.5 million on contributions, and dropped another $1.8 million on outside spending. The top 31 recipients of Chamber largesse all were Republican candidates or Republican-supporting funds.

A sign for Midway Business Park in Knox County. (Photo: Mark Harmon)
A sign for Midway Business Park in Knox County. (Photo: Mark Harmon)

In Tennessee some of our counties have formal Chamber Partnerships, a cozy relationship (if not outright merger) between local economic and political power. I saw this relationship close up as a Knox County Commissioner from 2006 to 2010. The chamber partnership had a line item in the budget, though we never funded consumer or labor groups that may be on the opposite side of the chamber’s public policy preferences.  My attempts to delete this item were rebuffed. The public service training entity Leadership Knoxville has strong ties to the Chamber.

The Chamber likes to present itself as a noble and civic-minded gathering of small local businesses like hairdressers, restaurant franchisees, dry cleaners, or hardware store owners. In fact, it is the local arm of an entity that promotes the extreme anti-regulatory agenda of some of the biggest multinational corporations in the world: low wages, no unionization, and weak consumer or environmental protection. Sometimes, such as when radical right culture wars make a state unattractive for investment, it can be a fleeting ally for good causes, but much more often it can be a leading cause of sprawl, worker exploitation, and fewer avenues for social mobility.

Graham K. Wilson, a professor emeritus at both Boston University and the University of Wisconsin, last year took to the pages of The Political Quarterly to remind us that, “American business enjoys significant advantages in politics, including a generally sympathetic culture, the loyal support of most Republicans, dominance of the interest group system and favorable incentives in the US political economy.”  

Some of the biggest issues that come before government at all levels have a heavy overlay of Chamber interests and lobbying. It is long past time that our elected officials and news organizations drop their blinders about the mission and influence of this important political player.

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Mark Harmon
Mark Harmon

Mark Harmon is a professor of journalism and media at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.