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Why Won’t the Chamber of Commerce Support Biden’s Vaccine Mandate?

Because it’s only starting to emerge from its decades-long imprisonment by the GOP.

A pedestrian passes under a large banner reading "JOBS" outside of the Chamber of Commerce in Washington, DC.
Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce would like everybody to get vaccinated against Covid-19, because the delta variant is seriously screwing with the economic recovery. But for decades it was joined at the hip to the Republican Party, which says it’s going to sue the Biden administration over its new vaccine mandates. The Chamber isn’t quite so subservient to Republicans as it was three or four years ago, but it’s still afraid to challenge GOP orthodoxy.

The Chamber has no objection to imposing Covid vaccine mandates at its own place of work. You may not enter its Beaux Arts fortress, situated across Lafayette Park from the White House, unless you can show that you’ve been vaccinated. Or rather, you won’t be able to enter once the Covid pandemic abates sufficiently for Chamber employees to return to the office. The prohibition will extend to Chamber employees, even though 90 percent of them are vaccinated already, according to an internal poll reported last month in Politico.

Vaccine mandates are also fine by the Chamber when imposed by individual businesses. “Can employers impose a vaccine mandate?” read an FAQ posted on the Chamber’s site last month. “Yes,” it answered, citing guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. 

What if that employer is the government? The Chamber FAQ didn’t raise that question, but in affirming that an employer could impose a vaccine mandate, it cited a July memorandum opinion by Dawn Johnson, acting assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, that said the government could impose a vaccine mandate. The main thrust of the memo was that an employer could impose a vaccine mandate even when the only vaccines available had received only “emergency use authorization,” and not final approval, from the Food and Drug Administration. That question became largely moot the following month when the FDA granted full-dress approval to the Pfizer vaccine. But the memo went on to say that an employer had the power to mandate vaccines, whether “public or private.”

It would not seem a very long walk from the Chamber acknowledging the government may impose a vaccine mandate on its own employees to the Chamber welcoming a vaccine mandate imposed by the government on private businesses that employ 100 people or more. Especially since the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s forthcoming emergency temporary Covid standard will be a “soft” mandate, allowing employees who absolutely refuse to be vaccinated the option of being tested for Covid “on at least a weekly basis before coming to work.” (When Biden, in July, imposed the same soft mandate on federal workers—he’s since hardened it—the Chamber’s chief policy officer, Neil Bradley, gave his blessing.)

But the Chamber isn’t willing to support the OSHA mandate—not just yet, anyway. “The Chamber will carefully review the details of the executive orders and associated regulations,” a Chamber spokesperson informed me by email, “and will work to ensure that employers have the resources, guidance, and flexibility necessary to ensure the safety of their employees and customers and comply with public health requirements.”

Why is the Chamber so hesitant to endorse OSHA’s vaccine mandate? The economy won’t recover fully until the pandemic is over. That won’t happen until some critical proportion of the population—no longer 70 percent, apparently, but now closer to 80 percent—is immune. The Biden administration has now given every employer in America an excuse to require his or her employees to be vaccinated. The president made me! The vaccine mandate is an absolute gift to business, in recognition of which the Business Roundtable, for example, endorsed it.

Maybe the Chamber questions whether OSHA has the authority to mandate vaccinations for private employees. If so, it’s just wrong. The Occupational Safety and Health Act, signed into law half a century ago by a Republican president, declared it to be Congress’s “purpose and policy … to assure so far as possible every working man and woman in the Nation safe and healthful working conditions.” A better argument can be made that OSHA was in violation of the law until Biden finally consented last week to impose a vaccine mandate.

Really, the Chamber should fall to its knees in gratitude. Privately, it probably is. But it’s so skittish about the whole subject of vaccine mandates that its press spokesperson declined to confirm to me that the Chamber has imposed one on its own employees. (It has.)

The reason for this nervousness is that the Chamber until recently was controlled by the Republican Party. That was the doing of President and Chief Executive Officer Thomas Donohue, a partisan demagogue who took the reins in 1997, held both titles through 2019, and finally relinquished his co-chairmanship with his successor, Suzanne Clark, earlier this year.

Before Donohue, the Chamber, founded in 1912, typically favored Republicans over Democrats, but when a Democrat favored a pro-business policy it tended to support that policy. As the journalist James Verini noted in a 2010 profile of Donohue in The Washington Monthly, the Chamber supported Franklin Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration (later dismantled after the Supreme Court declared its enabling legislation unconstitutional) and Bill Clinton’s North American Free Trade Agreement. 

Donohue’s immediate predecessor, Richard Lesher, even lent initial support to Bill Clinton’s proposed health care reforms, arguing (sensibly) that spiraling health care costs had become a burden to business. But after the 1994 midterms delivered the House to the Republicans, the new GOP majority threatened to help found a competing organization unless the Chamber came to heel. John Boehner, then chairman of the House Republican Conference, told a Chamber lobbyist it was “the Chamber’s duty to categorically oppose everything that Clinton was in favor of.”

Donohue didn’t need to be told twice. He “brought in generalist lobbyists who knew about the politics but not the substance of the issues,” Willard Workman, a former Chamber vice president, told Verini. “They couldn’t go to the Hill and talk about an export-control regime, because they couldn’t spell ‘regime.’”   

If a policy advanced Republican interests, Donahue embraced it, even if the Chamber lost members as a result. The most dramatic example occurred when the Chamber demanded that the Environmental Protection Agency hold hearings on whether human activity affected climate change before it imposed any regulations. This was in 2009, when all doubt on this subject had long been laid to rest. The hearings “would be evolution versus creationism,” an excited William Kovacs, the Chamber’s senior vice president for environment, technology, and regulatory affairs, told the Los Angeles Times, implicitly putting the Chamber on the side of creationists. “It would be the science of climate change on trial.” Five companies, including Nike and Apple, were so horrified that they quit the Chamber.

Donohue’s insistence that there be no daylight between the Chamber and the Republicans started to give way during the Trump presidency, as the GOP lost its mind. In 2019, the Chamber changed its method for rating members of Congress, with the result that in 2020 it endorsed 23 House Democrats for reelection. The Chamber was critical of Trump’s immigration policies, and after the January 6 insurrection, Donohue broke with Trump completely, calling his conduct that day “absolutely unacceptable and completely inexcusable” and pledging to cut off political contributions to anyone who supported Trump’s efforts to delegitimize the election. (Never mind that the Chamber subsequently gave $2,500 to Dan Crenshaw, who signed an amicus brief supporting Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s ridiculous lawsuit to throw out votes in four states.)

But the Chamber’s lingering vaccine hesitancy shows it’s still nervous about alienating Republicans, even as Republicans position themselves (however unpersuasively) as populist opponents to “woke” corporations. Really, though, it should show a little gumption. The interests of business coincide with Biden’s vaccine mandate. The Chamber of Commerce is supposed to serve the interests of business. You do the math.