America's business lobby takes a hypocritical dive into Georgia's race
© Karen Handel, Getty Images

The race to fill Georgia’s sixth district U.S. House of Representatives seat is the most expensive House race ever. Already, the candidates — as well as outside groups — have spent a combined total of more than $36 million on the race. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has announced that it plans to spend at least $1 million in support of Republican candidate Karen Handel. In its first attack ad for Handel, the Chamber accuses her opponent, Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff, of being bankrolled by out-of-state Hollywood actors.

This is a pretty audacious claim for the Beltway-based Chamber to make. Just 74 donors (in all likelihood mostly large corporations) giving at least $500,000 accounted for almost 60 percent of the Chamber’s roughly $200 million budget in 2014, according to a report released by Public Citizen last year. Presumably most of these corporate donors — whose identities the Chamber doesn’t disclose — aren’t any more connected to Georgia than the Hollywood actors the Chamber complains about.

The fact that a few deep-pocketed entities account for the majority of the Chamber’s budget speaks to the Chamber’s true priority: defending the interests of the wealthy industries that fund it, including Wall Street, big oil, big tobacco, big retail, and big pharma.

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Of course, the Chamber likes to pretend that it is the voice of American business speaking on behalf of 300,000 businesses, most of them small businesses. And many people who are familiar only with their local chamber of commerce may be inclined to believe that this is true. But nothing could be further from the truth.

 

On issue after issue, the Chamber is out of step not only with public opinion, but also with business opinion. A poll of business leaders taken by GOP pollster Frank Luntz for the Association of State Chambers of Commerce reveals that a majority of business leaders actually support many policies opposed by the U.S. Chamber, including raising the minimum wage, paid sick leave, predictive scheduling for employees, and environmental regulations.

One group with whom the Chamber is not out of step is the Republican Party. The Chamber’s policy positions are almost perfectly aligned with those of the GOP. Or rather, the GOP’s positions are almost perfectly aligned with those of the Chamber. You see, the Chamber has become one of the GOP’s biggest benefactors. In the 2016 elections, the Chamber formed an explicit alliance with leading Republican luminaries to “save the Senate” for the GOP. Indeed, the Chamber was the largest dark money spender on congressional elections in 2016 and 100 percent of its spending benefited Republican candidate.

Lost in the Chamber’s flood of partisan political spending on behalf of its big business allies are the more nuanced views of the majority of business executives. Likewise, the Chamber also ignores the priorities of small business, green energy, sustainable business and a host of other sectors. But most important, the Chamber ignores the priorities of individual voters. It doubly disrespects voters — by concealing who’s really trying to buy the election, and by trying to buy the election in the first place.

The Chamber’s ads may claim that Karen Handel is “one of us,” but that begs the question: who’s the “us” to which the Chamber’s ads refer? If the Chamber can’t even faithfully represent the interests of most business executives, how can it pretend to claim kinship with voters in Georgia’s sixth congressional district? The only “us” to whom the Chamber can plausibly claim kinship is made up of the powerful corporate lobbies that have bought our democracy and captured our government.

We don’t claim to know if Handel or Ossoff would make a good representative for Georgia’s sixth district, but we do know that unlimited corporate dark money is bad for our democracy. More than one million people have written to the Securities and Exchange Commission urging it to require publicly held corporations to disclose their political spending including donations to politically active trade associations such as the Chamber. Such a rule would allow voters to know which corporations and other wealth special interests are actually funding the ads that they see. Were such a rule in place, op-eds such as this one wouldn’t be necessary as claims of kinship with actual voters made by corporate front groups such as the Chamber wouldn’t even pass the smell test.

Make no mistake, the Chamber isn’t one of us. It’s one of them.

Dan Dudis is director of the U.S. Chamber Watch Program at Public Citizen, an organization dedicated to ensuring all citizens are represented in government.


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