U.S. Chamber Chairman Tom Bell talks about Obama vs. business organization

By Maria Saporta
Friday, October 22, 2010

In the weeks leading up to the Nov. 2 midterm elections, an uproar has erupted between the Obama administration and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce over campaign finances and policy issues.

Unknown to most Georgians, sitting right in the middle of this political firestorm is one of the Atlanta’s top business leaders.

Tom Bell, formerly CEO of Cousins Properties Inc. and now executive chairman of the security services provider SecurAmerica LLC, is the current chairman of the U.S. Chamber. In that role, Bell has been one of the architects of the business organization’s increased political involvement and national visibility during this election season.

Bell sat down with Atlanta Business Chronicle for an exclusive interview to talk about his role with the U.S. Chamber, the reasons behind the U.S. Chamber’s current strategy and its concerted effort to help fund the campaigns of pro-business candidates to Congress.

“About a year ago, I realized that this is going to be different than a normal midyear cycle,” said Bell, who became chamber chairman this past June and served as vice chairman for the previous year.

Bell said he started getting concerned when President Barack Obama did not reach out to business leaders in making key appointments in his administration. And the U.S. Chamber had growing concerns that the leadership in Congress was pushing anti-business legislation.

“It just struck me that we needed more votes,” Bell said. “It was obvious there was no business voice in this administration. We knew the leadership in Congress, and business didn’t have enough votes or advocates in Congress.”

The U.S. Chamber is actively involved in 40 races for the U.S. House of Representatives and nine in the U.S. Senate. It decided which candidates to support based on its long-standing scoring system, which it uses to measure the pro-business record of legislators and candidates. The U.S. Chamber only will support candidates with a score of 70 or higher. Although most of the candidates on the U.S. Chamber’s wish list are Republican, Bell said that about one-fourth of them are pro-business Democrats.

“It is a very unusual election,” Bell said. “The American electorate is angrier than I’ve ever seen. They think they’ve been betrayed. And they weren’t feeling very good about the Bush administration towards the end.“

The relationship between the U.S. Chamber and the administration also deteriorated with differences over proposed cap-and-trade legislation, the health-care bill, new regulations on the financial industry and union-friendly policies.

“You have got a president who openly criticizes the business community and uses his bully pulpit to criticize the business community and paints it as greedy and self-interested,” Bell said. “What he’s not realizing or not wanting to celebrate is the fact that we create the jobs, we create the wealth, and we pay the taxes that he wants to support his programs.”

In the last couple of weeks, Obama has attacked the U.S. Chamber’s financial involvement in political campaigns and charged that some of those funds are coming from foreign companies.

“That’s a complete fabrication,” Bell said curtly.

But what disturbs Bell even more is how personal the attacks have become.

“I think it’s a big political mistake,” Bell said. “It’s unusual for a president to target individual organizations. He thought he needed an enemy. It’s really not very smart politics because every time he criticizes us, it increases our fundraising and our membership.”

During the 2008 election year, the U.S. Chamber spent about $35 million on political activities, Bell said, adding that “this year we’ll spend between $60 million to $70 million.”

Bell said that some of the U.S. Chamber’s 300,000 members may feel as though the organization has become too active politically.

“But the vast majority of the business community, unlike any time I’ve seen, is prepared to be involved,” Bell said. “They’re going to vote, and they’re going to try to educate their employees. We need more people to understand the free enterprise system in order to preserve and protect our way of life.”

In his chamber role, Bell has been on the speaker circuit for the past year, and he has been preaching the following theme: “For the first time in my life, I feel like the free enterprise system is at risk.”

Bell, however, is optimistic that the November elections will lead to a friendlier Congress. But what is not known is whether the new balance of power will lead to more moderate policies or to gridlock.

“The best outcome would be to have a pro-business majority in both the houses. That would not require it to be a Republican majority, especially in the Senate,” Bell said. “If the new Congress and the administration can’t find common ground, you’ll just have gridlock for two years, and then you’ll have another national election, and people will decide what they want.”

But Bell is hopeful that 2010 will be a repeat of 1994, when President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, saw Congress become controlled by Republicans. Because neither party was in total control, the Clinton administration and Congress worked together to pass legislation that would reduce the deficit.

Erskine Bowles, Clinton’s White House chief of staff, was instrumental in that effort. Now Bowles is co-chairing President Obama’s Debt and Deficit Commission along with former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson. The commission is scheduled to submit its report on Dec. 1.

Ironically, Bowles, who is president of the University of North Carolina, also is on the board of Bell’s former employer, Cousins Properties.

“The deficit issue is looming. It is the moose in the middle of the table,” said Bell, adding that the U.S. Chamber is looking forward to the commission’s report. “You may even see the Chamber support a tax increase. If the deficit commission brings a recommendation forward that has significant cost reductions and tax increases, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Chamber and other business organizations support it. We have to do something about the deficit.”

During the interview, it was clear that Bell was relishing his role as a pivotal player in the center of this national controversy.

“I want to be involved and make a difference. I don’t want to feel like I’m just drawing breath and enjoying my good fortune,” Bell said. “I want to be involved in what’s going on and have a positive impact.”

Bell marvels at the timing of his tenure as chairman of the U.S. Chamber. In a normal chamber year, Bell said, he would have helped figure out the organization’s budget, tried to raise money, helped with the legislative agenda and made speeches.

“That would have been fine, pleasant and educational,” Bell said. “But that really was not going to get your blood boiling. This is a crisis. We’ve got to do something or the free enterprise system is at risk. That’s a whole different feeling. That gets me motivated when I wake up in the morning, and it gets me energized.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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