As Pandemic Rages, MBAs Battle The U.S. Chamber Of Commerce

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is fighting to stop the invocation of the Defense Production Act in the fight against coronavirus. MBAs at the leading B-schools are fighting the Chamber. File photo

We live in unusual times. As the novel coronavirus COVID-19 spreads and the death toll mounts, business schools worldwide have gone virtual and canceled in-person events, including classes, experiential learning programs, travel, and networking events — all the things that usually fill an MBA student’s calendar. As they adjust to the new normal, students are using their sudden wealth of free time in unexpected ways. Now a growing number have found cause in the fight against the pandemic, and in a way few could have expected — by fighting the world’s largest business organization.

MBAs have launched an effort to pressure the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a group that represents millions of businesses, to stop lobbying against the invocation of the Defense Production Act, which allows the federal government, as directed by the president, to enlist the aid of private businesses in producing materials and equipment needed to address crises. In this case, if President Trump invoked the DPA, companies like General Motors could make ventilators for hospitals to treat those infected by the virus — but Trump has been reluctant to make that move, and Chamber opposition is seen as a chief reason.

The American Hospital Association wants it. The American Medical Association wants it. Nurses and national security experts alike agree. Now, in a campaign that began at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, MBAs have joined a letter-writing effort to persuade the Chamber to reverse course. The campaign has caught fire, spreading to dozens of B-schools as hundreds of grad students weigh in.

“We just started this weekend, and our numbers almost doubled in the last 24 hours,” Booth School MBA student Richard Day, who started the campaign with colleagues, tells Poets&Quants. “It’s a weird thing for business school students to do, but this is a pretty weird time. That’s where we’re at. MBAs are scared about their job opportunities going forward, but they also want to be useful. It’s pretty dark to see the biggest lobby in the country pouring sand in the gears of our national response.”

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Chicago Booth MBA Richard Day. LinkedIn

The need for action struck Day last week when the second-year MBA student received an email from the Chamber touting its support for legislation benefiting nonprofits. Having read recently of other efforts by the Chamber — namely lobbying the Trump administration not to invoke the DPA to force the manufacture of ventilators desperately needed to treat the exponentially rising number of coronavirus cases — he was appalled by the incongruity.

Working with fellow students at the Booth School, Day launched the letter-writing campaign to the CEO of the Chamber, Thomas Donohue, and its president, Suzanne Clark, asking them “to publicly encourage the Trump administration to expand its use of the Defense Production Act as appropriate and to take more aggressive measures to address shortages of critical equipment.” The campaign started March 28. By April 2 it had 160 signees from around the country — a reflection, Day says, of the urgency of the problem.

“We’re school students,” says Day, a finance major who plans to work in consulting. “We’re not political activists. But this started to explode on social media, and we started to get all sorts of responses from Wharton and MIT — and we didn’t reach out to anybody at Wharton, for example. It’s just starting to circulate and take off.

“The real idea here is that we want to, one, draw attention to what’s going on — that even though individual companies are doing some really important work, the Chamber, which is the country’s biggest business lobby, is fighting any efforts to move faster. And two, we want to help the Chamber understand that MBAs are the future customers in the Chamber of Commerce. Maybe not me, but someday maybe my classmates and MBAs at other schools are going to be running or helping make decisions at companies that decide whether to pay the Chamber of Commerce to lobby for them.

“And even if the current leadership of the Chamber and the current leadership of some companies say they don’t think that’s OK or they want to protect their quarterly profits instead of try to save lives, for the future business leaders in this country, that’s wildly unacceptable in this horrifying emergency.”


As Joshua Gotbaum, assistant secretary of defense for economic security in the Clinton administration, wrote in The Washington Post on March 28: The Defense Production Act “allows federal agencies to collaborate with business to get critical supplies during emergencies — by encouraging investment and speeding production — and direct them to where they’re most needed. … The government can also use the act to order, and then pay for, expanded production, with new products or new plant capacity. The Defense Department uses it to ensure adequate stockpiles of supplies as varied as ammunition and exotic metals, as well as the capability to make more of them.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce represents the interests of more than 3 million businesses. Its resistance to the invocation of the DPA is widely seen as the primary cause of the Trump administration’s intransigence — an intransigence Richard Day and many of his colleagues do not understand.

Reversing that opposition, Day says, is crucial to mobilizing the national effort to combat the coronavirus.

“The Chamber is lobbying all-out to prevent the federal government from having a more aggressive approach to combating the coronavirus,” he says.  “But at the same time, they still want to get in front of MBAs to do the PR thing, and talk about how great corporate America is. And the tension between those two things is really pretty thick. They want all of the PR upside while trying to fight so hard to protect quarterly profits of some specific companies from any more aggressive federal action.

“Experts say if we had used the Defense Production Act right off the bat, the ventilators we keep talking about would already be rolling off the line at GM, because of how much faster it would’ve allowed the federal government to act. That is still true now, but in a month we’ll be needing them for freezer trucks, not ventilators.”

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