Yesterday, energy secretary Steven Chu told reporters at a solar energy conference in Washington, D.C. "it's wonderful" that Apple Inc., Exelon, Nike, PG&E, and PNM Resources have quit the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or its board. He also encouraged other companies to leave, according to Reuters.
This crosses the line. The Secretary of Energy is not supposed to use the authority of his taxpayer-funded office to advocate the breakup of the Chamber of Commerce, or of any lawful private association, for that matter.
Chu is of course free to criticize the Chamber's positions on climate policy. Even then, however, such criticism should be generic, focused on the positions, not on the organization, lest it have a chilling effect.
But when Chu praises companies for leaving the Chamber, he is not only injecting himself into a quarrel that is none of his business; he is taking hostile action against the organization.
Imagine the outcry from congressional Democrats, the liberal media, and the environmental community if Bush energy secretary Samuel Bodman had urged companies to quit U.S. CAP, or if Bush EPA Administrator Steven Johnson told Sierra Club members to cancel their memberships.
Chu has been in office too long to still think of himself as an academic free to spout off on any topic he likes. He is a cabinet secretary, and unless we're now living in a banana republic, cabinet heads are not authorized to threaten people over policy differences.
Threaten how? DOE does business with Chamber members. DOE therefore has the power to affect the bottom lines of Chamber companies.
Let's also not put blinders on here. Environmental lobbying groups are waging a campaign of intimidation against the Chamber because it refuses to put the short-term special interest of energy-rationing profiteers ahead of the long-term general interest of business in limited government, economic growth, and affordable energy. Chu's remarks make him a de-facto partner in this intimidation campaign.
Most importantly, when Chu speaks, he speaks for the Obama administration, which wields vast regulatory and prosecutorial powers over the business community. It is precisely because the executive branch is inherently coercive that we expect cabinet secretaries to avoid even the appearance of trying to suppress political dissent.
Chu should apologize to the Chamber and then do the decent thing: resign.