Chamber of Commerce wages war against political transparency

Greg Nash

Last week, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) wrote to President Barack Obama urging him to replace Mary Jo White as chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). While Warren’s call to replace White understandably drew big headlines, lost in the media maelstrom was her identification of one of the principal big money corporate groups that have fought political spending transparency: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

{mosads}Our political system is awash in secret money, much of it from big corporations and other wealthy special interests. Much of this money is funneled through groups like the Chamber, which doesn’t disclose its membership. The Chamber has spent $145 million on elections since 2008 and almost $1.3 billion on lobbying since 1998, and is fighting tooth and nail to preserve its ability to continue flooding our democracy with secret money.

Warren begins her letter by condemning a budget rider banning the SEC from finalizing a rule on political spending transparency (though the agency can still work on it). Such an SEC rule would provide investors with critical information, allow voters to see who is trying to buy our democracy and has been demanded by a record number of investors and the public.

The Chamber repeatedly has lobbied Congress for just such a rider. Looking forward to the lame-duck budget negotiations, Congress should reject the Chamber’s efforts to keep pumping unlimited corporate dark money into our democracy, and Obama should promise to veto any final budget legislation that contains such a rider.

Even if this rider is eventually removed, achieving meaningful political spending transparency still requires an SEC that is prepared to act. It is here that Warren finds White’s leadership sorely lacking. White, even before the passage of this rider, halted the SEC’s work on developing a political spending disclosure rule and removed it from the agency’s agenda.

Warren cites the Chamber as one of the main business groups lobbying against a political spending disclosure rule. Just as it lobbied Congress for the rider, the Chamber lobbied the SEC against a political spending disclosure rule. What’s more, it also wrote to its members urging them not to voluntarily disclose their political spending when asked by their shareholders to do so.

Why is the Chamber so obsessed with secrecy? Perhaps because its business model depends upon it.

Chamber President Tom Donohue has said that the Chamber is in the business of providing “reinsurance” to companies that need help lobbying for positions that aren’t publicly or politically palatable. And key to the Chamber’s ability to provide this “reinsurance” is the fact that it can do the dirty work for its members without them leaving their fingerprints behind.

“I want to give [member companies] all the deniability they need,” Donohue has stated. Were the SEC to issue a political spending disclosure rule, publicly traded companies would have to disclose the money that they gave to trade associations like the Chamber, destroying the precious “deniability” that Donohue offers his members. 

Warren also takes issue with White’s antipathy toward disclosure in general. The prime example of this is her decision to devote agency resources to her “Disclosure Effectiveness Initiative” (which seems very unlikely to provide shareholders with the new information they have been demanding about their companies) rather than focus on mandated rule-making under the Dodd-Frank Act and other new rules investors have been seeking.

Here again, Warren fingers the Chamber as the chief opponent of disclosure, writing that “[w]hile the investor community does not believe that information overload is a problem, one prominent group does: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which lobbies government on behalf of the giant companies responsible for making these disclosures.”

Indeed, the Chamber issued a report claiming that investors are drowning in too much information born of too many disclosures without presenting any evidence that actual investors are clamoring for fewer disclosures.

While the Chamber likes to pretend that it’s standing up for the interests of investors, workers and small businesses, the reality couldn’t be further from the truth.

A recent Chamber Watch report revealed that just 74 donors each giving at least $500,000 provided almost 60 percent of the Chamber’s funding, and that approximately 1,500 entities each giving at least $5,000 provided a whopping 96 percent of the Chamber’s funding.

Who are these entities? We don’t know, because the Chamber won’t disclose its members and White’s SEC won’t require publicly traded companies to disclose their political spending.

But given the huge sums involved, we know that these donors are very rich and have very little in common with your average investor, worker or small business.

Warren is right. Congress must remove this rider and White must go. Investors and, indeed, all Americans deserve an SEC that will fight for their interests rather than defend the interests of big business.

Similarly, American businesses — in particular the 28 million American small businesses but also those forward-thinking big businesses — deserve a business lobby that will fight for their interests and not those handful of deep-pocketed companies and individuals looking to impose a harmful agenda on all of us.

Dudis is the director of Public Citizen’s U.S. Chamber Watch Program.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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