Chamber promises vigorous campaign ads despite court rulings

Court rulings that require the disclosure of funding for campaign “issue” ads will not change the U.S Chamber of Commerce’s political program, officials with the business group insisted Monday.

Chamber President and CEO Tom Donohue promised a vigorous campaign program despite a U.S. Court of Appeals ruling last week upholding an earlier judgment that the Federal Elections Commission was wrong not to require disclosure of funding for issue ads.

“We will have a vigorous, not changed in terms of our objectives and our methods, election program. These cases do not change that,” Donohue said Monday at a breakfast sponsored by The Christian Science Monitor. “Second, we will not have to disclose where our funding comes from.”

Bruce Josten, the Chamber’s executive vice president for government affairs, noted that the decision has been appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

Josten also said while the court rulings target “electioneering communications” — also known as issue ads and typically what the Chamber spends its political money on — they said nothing about “independent expenditures,” which allows groups to expressly advocate for or against a candidate’s election.

“We’re not going to pull back from anything we’re doing. It’s full steam ahead. The only thing that may switch is you’re forced to do express advocacy using the magic words ‘vote for,’ ‘vote against’ as opposed to highlighting a given member’s legislative record,” Josten said.

The Chamber argues those pushing for rules requiring the disclosure of funding for ads are not seeking greater transparency, but instead the intimidation of donors to force them out of the political process.

“It’s all about intimidation. … They want to be able to intimidate people not to put their money into the electoral process,” Donohue said. “We can, under these decisions, run an aggressive program, and we will.”

Josten noted a boycott aimed at the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, that has led to several corporate donors dropping their sponsorship of the group.

Proponents of rules requiring disclosure say voters should know more about the people and groups paying for advertisements.

The Chamber spent more than $32 million in the 2010 mid-term elections on issue ads, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a campaign finance watchdog group. The group is likely to spend as much, if not more, for this election year.

Josten noted that the Chamber began its political program in November last year, an early start for its campaign activities. Further, fundraising for the group has been at a faster pace.

“Much earlier and much more,” Josten said.

Chamber officials said as per tradition that they will not endorse in the presidential campaign but do plan to be active in several congressional and state-level races.

Donohue said fundraising for the Chamber is often improved when donors are scared and angry.

“I will say often when you raise money and you get people to try to help you not just on political stuff, but legislative stuff, regulatory stuff, union stuff, you find people that are frightened or sometimes you find people that are mad. … If they’re frightened and mad, they’re really motivated,” Donohue said.

The business group was a major supporter of the reauthorization of the U.S. Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im). But despite the GOP-leaning group’s backing for the reauthorization, 93 House Republicans voted against it, showing a rift between the Chamber and Tea Party-affiliated lawmakers that was evident during last summer’s debt ceiling debate.

Josten said the Chamber was not pleased that some lawmakers went against the group.

“It makes us upset that some of them went against us. Some of them typically go against us,” Josten said. “There’s some new people that, I would contend, who don’t truly to this day understand Ex-Im as a lending facility or the fact that letters of credit and international trade has been around for a thousand years.”

Donohue said he respects the Tea Party and said the trade association is learning to work with lawmakers considered close to the group.

“They’re not crazies. They are people who believe in conservative economic policies. … They’re citizen legislators, which was the idea in the first place with the House in particular,” Donohue said. “Some of them are not going to stay. Some of them are going to get a little more informed and become more useful.”

The Chamber is also encouraging lawmakers to pass a long-term surface transportation reauthorization bill, though Josten believes another short-term extension is in the offing.

“Absent some deal on revenue, you’re probably looking at another extension,” Josten said.

In addition, the Chamber is already talking to lawmakers about dealing with the “fiscal cliff” — a term used by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke to describe a number of expiring tax breaks and budget cuts that will come at the end of the year.

“Everybody knows the gravity,” Donohue said. “Talk about it now, and there’s a lot of people getting together to talk about this stuff. And figure out what we can do in those 60 days, or how ever many they are, and whether we push some of it forward a month so we do it in an organized way.”

— This story was updated at 12:53 p.m.