U.S. Chamber of Commerce - Doing bidding for big business

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Outside the reach of the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and the public, corporations are spending money through trade associations, like the U.S. Chamber, to sway our elections. Rather than give to super PACs, which must disclose their donors, corporations with a distaste for disclosure have found nonprofits and trade associations to be the perfect conduit for escaping accountability while influencing elections.

The U.S. Chamber is a political spending heavyweight, even among the behemoths. It plans to spend as much as $100 million to influence this year’s elections without having to disclose a single one of its corporate donors. While the Chamber is not a super PAC, it functions as one, with its big ad buys and the ability to collect unlimited corporate funds. The only difference is that the Chamber isn’t required to disclose its donors to the FEC.

It’s hard to overestimate the influence this group’s ads could have on the election. The Chamber plans to spend in 50 House races and eight Senate races, as well as the presidential race. In the 2010 midterm elections, the Chamber was the largest outside spending group, investing almost $32 million in advertisements. Its ads were so pervasive and partisan that many local Chambers disassociated themselves with the U.S. Chamber. Whether voters agree or disagree with the Chamber’s positions, Americans deserve to know which companies are bankrolling political advertisements.

The Chamber’s lack of disclosure makes it hard to get a clear picture of where all of the money is coming from, but we do have some clues. Hundreds of companies collectively pay millions of dollars in dues to the U.S. Chamber, from Coca-Cola ($100,000 to $499,000) to Dow Chemical ($1,648,750) to News Corp. ($1 million). While these companies have elected to disclose their dues, many leave their shareholders in the dark.

Other companies have tried to pull a fast one on their shareholders by disclosing dues but not other “special payments” made to the Chamber. Aetna was recently outed for contributing $4.5 million the Chamber in so-called special payments while disclosing only $10,000 in dues to its shareholders. When asked if his organization was just providing political cover to corporations, Chamber President Tom Donohue proudly declared, “I want to give them all the deniability they need.”

Unfortunately, the Chamber’s firewall of secrecy extends beyond hiding its own corporate donors. The Chamber has spent $55 million on lobbying this year. It is impossible to know how much the group spent lobbying on individual pieces of legislation, but records show Chamber lobbyists fought measures that would require companies to seek shareholder approval before spending in politics and require political spending disclosure by companies seeking government contracts. The Chamber also lobbied against the DISCLOSE Act, a measure that would increase election transparency by requiring donor disclosure by any group spending $10,000 or more to influence an election. So the Chamber doesn’t just hide its own donors; the group is fighting to keep the public in the dark about which other corporations and wealthy individuals are funding elections.

The commonsense reforms opposed by the Chamber are exactly the kinds of reforms that Americans favor.  In a recent poll conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, 80 percent of respondents favored corporations receiving approval from shareholders before spending money in politics. In another poll by Clarus Research Group, 88 percent of respondents said that all campaign contributions and expenditures should be disclosed. The U.S. Chamber is thumbing its nose at the American people by leading the charge in an unprincipled fight against open elections.

But we can fight back by demanding accountability in our elections and from the Chamber. The Corporate Reform Coalition, a diverse group representing shareholders, institutional investors, small businesses, public interest groups and more, is working to do just that by pressuring corporations to disclose the payments they make to dark money groups like the Chamber of Commerce.  The coalition also is taking the Chamber head on by “celebrating” its 100th anniversary with a birthday petition asking it to disclose its donors. Reform makes sense to everyone except for the Chamber and its corporate pals, and their stonewalling must come to an end. 

Corporations intend to spend millions of dollars in this year’s elections through the Chamber of Commerce alone. That’s millions in shareholder equity gone to waste. That’s millions in sleazy, negative advertising that must be endured by Americans across the country. That’s millions spent in total secrecy to advance Corporate America’s agenda regardless of what the American people want and need. Open elections start by removing the mask on the U.S. Chamber and its corporate cronies. The Chamber will not disclose its donors or drop its crusade against open government without a fight. Let’s give it to them.

Ngo is a legislative assistant at Public Citizen.