By NANCY KAFFER
Detroit Free Press columnist
By CRAIG MAUGER
Michigan Campaign Finance Network executive director
LANSING (May 30, 2019) — On a cold Thursday morning In downtown Lansing, a Buick idles near the front door of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce office. Three minutes before 10 o'clock, state Sen. Ed McBroom rushes out of the building, jumps into the Buick's passenger seat, and settles in for the short drive to the state Capitol.
McBroom, a Republican from Vulcan, chairs the Senate Oversight Committee. When he gavels the committee to order at 10:30 a.m., the lone item on the agenda is a resolution — backed by the Michigan Chamber, which also spent $45,000 to support McBroom's most recent re-election — to make sure industry representatives maintain a decisive voice in the state's environmental rule-making process.
The Michigan Chamber of Commerce has become one of the most influential interest groups in Lansing. It lobbies on a wider array of issues than most others. It gives more campaign money than most others. And its efforts are examples of the many ways groups outside state government can try to shape what happens inside.
Year in and year out, Chamber lobbyists provide a master course on bending public policy to serve the private interests of its 6,000 members.
In the 2018 election cycle alone, the Chamber spent some $2 million to elect and retain lawmakers friendly to what it defines as the best interests of business. Chamber lobbyists help write legislation. The Chamber frequently provides witnesses who support its testimony before lawmakers the Chamber helped elect to represent districts the Chamber helped to draw.
“If you’re determined to play a constructive role in the legislative process, you can’t do that if you can’t get a bill introduced, can’t get it out of committee, can’t get it to the floor — and that’s why we were created,” says Rich Studley, who has been the Michigan Chamber’s president and CEO since 2008.) “At some point, you have to work to change the makeup of the Legislature.”
The Chamber’s extraordinary clout was on full display in last year's lame-duck session — the period from November election until the end of year when lawmakers who were defeated or term-limited left office.
During the five-week session, the Chamber’s lobbyists publicly weighed in on 28 different policy proposals — more than any other large interest group, according to a Michigan Campaign Finance Network analysis of committee minutes. The Legislature sided with the Chamber on 24 of the 28 proposals, or 85 percent of the time.
Among other triumphs, the Chamber lobbied successfully to keep Enbridge’s Line 5 oil pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac, to gut a citizen-initiated law that would have required some employers to provide paid sick-leave; and to slash scheduled increases in Michigan's minimum wage.
Now, on a February morning just five weeks into the new legislative session, the Chamber's lobbyists were massing to defend their victories against the new Democratic governor who had beaten the Chamber's preferred candidate.
One of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's first acts had been to abolish advisory groups that gave industry representatives authority to delay or dilute environmental regulations proposed by the state Department of Environmental Resources. Backed by the Chamber and dubbed "polluter panels" by environmentalists who opposed them, the advisory groups had been established by then-Gov. Rick Snyder just the year before.
On Feb. 7, less than an hour after McBroom left the Chamber, his committee began hearing testimony on a resolution to overrule Whitmer's order; later, senators voted along party-lines to keep the advisory panels in place — a decision environmentalists say ensures that industry will continue to regulate itself.
McBroom said the meeting he attended at the Chamber was more about him updating business leaders than him being lobbied by them. He also noted that he's hasn't been afraid to disagree with the Michigan Chamber previously.
Among the Chamber's biggest beneficiaries is Canadian oil giant Enbridge, which secured former Gov. Rick Snyder's permission late last year to build a new tunnel in the Straits of Mackinac to transport oil. The agreement, which Whitmer and state Attorney General Dana Nessel hope to scuttle or amend, allows Enbrirdge to keep its aging pipeline in place for another decade during construction, over the objections of environmentalists who say it’s a disaster waiting to happen.
The Chamber also lobbied successfully for lame-duck changes that effectively gutted citizen-initiated legislation designed to boost the state's minimum wage and mandate paid sick time for more Michigan workers. Lawmakers had earlier adopted both initiatives in a strategic move designed to keep them off the November 2018 ballot and preserve the Legislature's option to make amendments sought by the Chamber.
In 2011, Michigan Chamber associates worked to re-draw Michigan’s legislative maps,a process intended to cram the state’s Democratic representation — about half of Michiganders are Democrats — into just five of Michigan's 14 Congressional districts.
Here’s how it works in the movies: a sinister guy in a suit shows up the night before a big vote, maybe in a dark parking garage, and hands a conflicted politician a wad of cash. The next day, the politician casts his or her vote the way the sinister guy wanted, and the bagman's employer gets that big government contract.
The way the Michigan Chamber works is less dramatic. But it's also a lot more effective.
“They have a comprehensive approach to all things that impact government, and it all goes back to the school of (former Michigan Gov.) John Engler,” a Lansing lobbyist who works for another group said. None of the lobbyists interviewed by the Detroit Free Press and the Michigan Campaign Finance Network were willing to be named. At some point, they said, everyone has to work with the Chamber.
“He taught us to get the right people on the Michigan Supreme Court, when the business community wasn’t engaging in those races. He came into office with a top-to-bottom policy and legislative agenda: We need to control redistricting, [and] to control redistricting we need to control the courts, need to control governor’s office, and we need to control the Legislature, so who’s with me?"
So while the Chamber works to forge relationships with legislators who won without its backing, it makes more sense to just elect friendly legislators.
“We have focused our efforts on recruiting candidates who are pro-free enterprise,” Studley says. “We focus on open seats, we focus on swing seats."
"There are groups, whether they’re business or labor, who will raise PAC dollars, and will spend most of that money on incumbents after the election,” Studley adds.
But not the Chamber.
“In terms of incumbents, we meet with a lawmaker and we will ask for their help. We will explain a problem, talk about proposed solutions,” Studley says. “We don’t tell people what to do. We try to educate, inform, and ask for their help.”
A lot of times, he says, lawmakers will say they’re thinking about this issue and they’d like to put in a bill.
That’s where the Chamber is most eager to help.
Studley says all of the Chamber’s lobbyists read the bills they’re asking lawmakers to act on. You’d be surprised, Studley says, at how many people who claim to be lobbyists don’t read the bills, “And couldn’t draft an amendment if they had to.”
So the Chamber's lobbyists are actually drafting legislation? Studley hedges: “Usually, we’re not giving a lawmaker a finished product."
“Most of what we do is along the lines of coaching or teaching,” he says. Term limits designed to assure regular transfusions of new legislative blood have a spawned a steady stream of newly elected lawmakers in need of coaching or teaching. And the Chamber has answered the demand.
“We are now, for better or for worse, the institutional memory,” Studley says.
Lansing is rife with lobbyists. If you can think of it, there’s a trade group that represents it — fruit growers, high school principals, hospitals, trial lawyers, millwrights, carpenters … the list goes on.
But it’s hard to find any lobbying group that has a broader reach than the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.
During last year’s lame-duck session, Michigan Chamber lobbyists weighed in at legislative hearings on sick leave and minimum wage, tax exemptions, environmental regulations, pharmaceutical costs, what kind of animals pet shops can sell, and under what circumstances a tree can be cut down. The Chamber was everywhere during the frenzied year-end rush, taking expressing its rooting interest in 28 different policy proposals — more than any other special interest group.
GOP lawmakers often argue that Michigan Education Association has the same kind of influence over Democrats that the Michigan Chamber exercises over Republicans. But the MEA took public positions on just five proposals during last year's lame duck, according to meeting minutes.
The Chamber successes, moreover, have kept pace with its ambitious scope. By the time December's lame duck session was over, state lawmakers had sided with the Chamber on 24 of the 28 initiatives in which the group took sides (although some of those bills victories were later undone by Snyder vetoes).
Some of the major Chamber-supported bills that got through the Legislature include the following:
• Senate Bill 1171 and Senate Bill 1175, which gutted sick leave and minimum wage standards lawmakers had previously approved. The Legislature's strategic approval of the citizen-initiated bills pre-empted a public referendum that might have protected both from legislative tinkering.
• Senate Bill 1244, which more closely tied state hazardous cleanup standards to federal standards with the aim of making it easier for developers to build on polluted properties;
• And House Bill 6595, which makes it more difficult for citizens to get ballot proposal before state voters.
The Chamber also successfully opposed some bills that died in lame duck, like House Bill 5223, which would have required some prescription drug manufacturers to file reports with the state about the costs associated with their drugs. Proponents argued the measure would increase transparency surrounding rising drug costs. Opponents said it would hurt innovation without cutting prescription costs.
The four proposals the Chamber didn’t get its way on included bills covering onsite wastewater treatment facilities, tree removal regulations and adding “free enterprise” instruction to 8th-grade curriculum requirements. The curriculum bill got a hearing in a House committee, but never got a vote before the full House.
Studley joined the Chamber as a lobbyist in 1981 and became its chief lobbyist in 1997. And although he’s led the group since 2008, still thinks of himself as a lobbyist.
And he’s really good at his job. He’s incredibly pleasant, even funny, greeting a Free Press columnist visiting the Chamber’s downtown Lansing office with a cheery “Welcome to the evil empire!'"
The Chamber’s membership roster isn’t public, but Studley says half the 6,000 members are small businesses, and insists that members' needs drive the group’s agenda.
“One of the misconceptions people have about the Michigan Chamber is that I sit here in my office alone and make this stuff up,” Studley says. “We’re very focused on listening to our members and understanding their problems and trying to have a mix of solutions.”
Those problems, as Studley explains it, often spring from employee-centered state policy.
“I’ve never met a candidate who says they’re opposed to jobs,” he says. “The difference is when candidates are elected, they say they’re for jobs but seem to hate job providers. It’s the iron law of economics, if there are no employers, there won’t be any employees.”
Studley says its obvious when you’re talking to someone who has paid business taxes, who has paid unemployment insurance or business compensation or who has mortgaged their home to start a company. And it’s just as obvious when you’re talking to a person who has only signed the back of a check — that means a worker, not an owner. This is not to suggest, he adds quickly, "that those people can’t become good lawmakers.”
The Chamber spends millions each year on state politics, contributing to lawmakers, to state legislative leadership, and to ballot committees. But campaign finance laws make it hard to understand the full scope of the group’s spending and where its money comes from.
A business donor can contribute to a nonprofit as membership dues. The nonprofit can funnel those dollars to a political action committee. Disclosure forms show only the name of the nonprofit, not its donors.
It’s a dodge employed by a lot of politically active organizations, and Studley bristles at the idea that there’s anything wrong with it.
“In the last few years, dark money is a phrase you hear more often, and it is intended to be a pejorative,” Studley says, when business groups are participating in politics as effectively as liberal groups. "Do you have any doubt about who the Michigan Chamber represents?"
Nancy Kaffer is a Detroit Free Press Columnist. Craig Mauger is the executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a nonpartisan watchdog group.