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The Business of Business in Washington

The American Farm Bureau's vicious opposition to addressing climate change is a good example of the different biases that affect trade groups. When someone like the AFB blasts out an angry press release, there's a tendency to say that "farmers" are against something. But that's not always the case.

Trade groups, for one thing, are biased toward their present membership, not their future membership. Global warming is projected to absolutely destroy America's crop production if given a hundred years to gather strength, but none of the AFB's present members, much less its present leaders, will be around by that point.

For another thing, some trade groups are more conservative, and others more liberal, than their membership. This has been a common problem with the big business trade groups: The type of people who come to Washington to lobby on behalf of corporate America are a lot more ideologically conservative than the type of people who run a mid-size electronics store, or a chain of groceries. This is, in part, why the Chamber of Commerce is losing members over its opposition to climate change legislation: The people who control the traditionally conservative Chamber have a different view of the world than the people who own Nike.

Another bias is that membership is often controlled by certain divisions within organizations that have different incentives than the broader companies. Many people, for instance, are baffled that corporate America isn't more enthusiastic about getting out of the health-care insurance business. But the folks who are making those decisions come from the HR departments of these organizations, and that means they're protecting their turf: HR is less important if there's no health-care coverage for it to manage. That's led to a lockstep opposition to a non-employer-based system that has baffled economists, and frustrated pro-corporate think tanks like the Committee for Economic Development.

That's why it's actually pretty important who helms these groups: Except in spectacular cases, like climate change and the Chamber of Commerce, the membership of these organizations tends to outsource their political thinking to the leadership of these organizations. Progressive leadership can take the group in a progressive direction and conservative leadership can do the opposite, even as the underlying membership hasn't changed at all. But relatively few young liberals come to town to work their way up the ranks of trade associations, so there's relatively less of them buried in the ranks of these places. And so "business" ends up quietly taking hard stands on fairly small issues that are actually of more interest to conservatives, but "business" isn't really spending its time thinking about this. Rather, the leadership ranks of the Chamber of Commerce are taking that stand, and the business community ends up along for the ride.

By Ezra Klein  |  October 16, 2009; 11:02 AM ET
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One theme common in current global climate debate is the impact of humans. If I spit into the ocean, the sea level does indeed rise: if every human simultaneously spits into the ocean, sea level rises even more.

There is generally agreement that reducing greenhouse gasses is a good thing; however, comparing natural, uncontrollable greenhouse gas generators such as volcanoes with human activity makes focus on the human activity look rather silly. As noted by the BBC, when such fact is considered alongside the 20-year cycle of cooling and warming global temperatures, successful argument is a difficult task for desiring economy-crippling regulations.

Advertising savvy usually wins over fact, though, so the economy-crippling regulations are likely.

Posted by: rmgregory | October 16, 2009 11:37 AM | Report abuse

If you read lobbyist reports they're always trying to impress you with how cautious they are in looking out for your business.

No lobbyist ever says, for example, you should support the Wyden plan because this could lead to business nirvana. Instead they say, "We are concerned that this radical change could lead to unforeseen consequences."

And then there's the fact that business owners do tend to be conservative. I think if a Republican had been pushing the Wyden plan it would have gotten a lot more traction.

Posted by: bmull | October 16, 2009 12:10 PM | Report abuse

Don't forget that employees' dependence on employer-sponsored health care depresses mobility. Corporate America likes that. It's another lever of power over us employees - we are less likely to leave our jobs if we're worried about health care. I enjoy my job, and am not looking to leave, but if I wanted to the health care hammerlock would be a powerful disincentive.

Posted by: utec | October 16, 2009 12:14 PM | Report abuse

Nice post. One key issue with the Farm Bureau is that it's political positions largely reflect agribusiness, rather than agriculture. Here in Missouri, the Farm Bureau advocates for large factory farms. As a result, small farmers have banded together in other organizations (Missouri Rural Crisis Center and the Farmers Union) to provide alternative viewpoitns.

The Farm Bureau will tell you about its large membership list. However, the FB is about the only place that you can get insurance for agricultural land, and if you buy insurance, you become a member. (You also start to receive all the FB communications, including political mailings.) The combination of (an illusory) large membership and a formidable communications machine makes the FB a group that nobody wants to cross. And the result is an agricultural policy that runs contrary to the interests of most farmers.

Posted by: mogreenie | October 16, 2009 12:19 PM | Report abuse

"Trade groups, for one thing, are biased toward their present membership, not their future membership."

I would add that they are also biased towards their present membership's present membership.

The unions' efforts to stop the tax on high end health insurance is the perfect example. It helps present members as long as they stay present members. But it doesn't help present members overall as they don't need a tax break much when they have their high paying union job. But in today's world there's a very high risk that they will lose that high paying union job and not be able to get another high paying union job. Then they will really need a generous universal health insurance bill.

People are much better off having a little less in good times to insure that they have much more, including healthcare, in a lot less good times. This current stance by the unions is bad for its members, and it's certainly bad for its member's sons and daughters, who very likely won't have union jobs for much, most, or all of their lives.

Posted by: RichardHSerlin | October 16, 2009 3:23 PM | Report abuse

A little late for this thread, but for the record:

rmgregory - that BBC post has been completely discredited everywhere - start at for Joe Romm's peer-science debunking. It was a sad day when the BBC of all people (well regarded up til now for its climate reporting) let such a blunder from a weather presenter slip under its radar.

mogreenie - yes, what you said, and please stick around. If we're going to start turning now to climate and farming (they go together in lots of ways), it's true we have to realize the FB speaks as little for the good of farming as the AMA speaks for the good of health care.

Posted by: rosshunter | October 16, 2009 8:32 PM | Report abuse

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