The United States Chamber of Commerce. Mean anything to you? Some think it’s a government agency and confuse it with the Department of Commerce. Others associate it with their hometown chamber of commerce and think of it as a sort of benign cheerleader for economic development. Of course many of you are probably already well aware of the Chamber’s true identity as an opaque and viciously partisan front group for the very worst elements of a reactionary agenda driven by Big Oil, Wall Street, Big Tobacco, and the Republican Party.
This marks the first in what will hopefully be a weekly series of pieces about the Chamber by the crew here at Public Citizen’s Chamber Watch project. Because we don’t know how much you already know about the Chamber, today’s blog will focus on the basics. In future pieces, we’ll take deeper dives into various aspects of the Chamber’s work. Because the Chamber is active in so many different issue areas, there’s a tremendous amount to cover. For that reason, we also want to hear from you—what would you like to know more about when it comes to the Chamber?
So, the basics. The Chamber was founded in 1912 at the urging of President William Howard Taft to act as a counterweight to the growing labor movement in the U.S. Given the reasons for its founding, it’s perhaps not surprising that the Chamber has a long history of opposing progressive reforms, from the New Deal to the Affordable Care Act. Still, throughout much of its history, the Chamber was a relatively pragmatic institution, and it occasionally even supported progressive initiatives, such as Hillary Clinton’s effort to reform the healthcare system in 1993-94.
In fact, it was this decision to support healthcare reform that ultimately led to the Chamber’s radicalization. When the GOP won control of Congress in 1994, Republican leaders were upset with the Chamber’s support for healthcare reform. They wanted a Chamber that would be a more reliable ally for the GOP and would more vigorously push the party’s deregulatory Big Business agenda.
Enter Tom Donohue. Donohue took over the Chamber in 1997 and immediately set to work transforming the once staid Chamber into the proverbial 800 pound gorilla of right wing politics. Since 1998, the Chamber has spent a staggering $1.3 billion lobbying the federal government, more than three times as much as the next biggest spender. And since the 2008 election cycle, greatly aided by the 2010 Citizens United decision, the Chamber has spent $150 million on congressional elections, almost exclusively to help Republicans. Because the Chamber is organized under section 501(c) of the tax code, it is not required to disclose any of its donors. In fact, the Chamber has been one of the largest if not the largest dark money elections spenders in recent cycles.
While the Chamber doesn’t disclose its donors, that doesn’t mean that we know nothing about who funds it. The Chamber likes to present itself as having 300,000 members, most of which are small businesses. “Mom and pop shops,” as the Chamber calls them, provide valuable cover to the handful of deep-pocketed entities that provide the vast majority of the Chamber’s $250 million plus annual budget. Just 74 large donors each giving at least $500,000 provided roughly 60% of the Chamber’s budget in 2014. And approximately 1500 donors each giving at least $5000 provided fully 96% of the Chamber’s 2014 budget. How many mom and pop shops do you know that have a spare $5000 – no less $500,000 – lying around handy to give to the Chamber? What’s more, if you do the math (making conservative assumptions favorable to the Chamber), you can determine that almost 90% (at a minimum) of the Chamber’s “members” are likely paying nothing at all and merely signed up for email updates. You or I or anyone can be a Chamber “member.”
So what do these large donors, presumably mostly giant corporations, get for their money? In the words of Donohue himself, they buy “deniability.” Wall Street, Big Oil, Big Tobacco, the big health insurers – what do they all have in common? Justifiably bad public reputations. So if they want to gut a portion of Dodd-Frank or fight incentives for renewable energy or try and kill the Affordable Care Act, it’s hard to do it in their own name. The general public already has their number. That’s where the Chamber comes in. Who better than the alleged voice of these thousands and thousands of mom and pop shops to lead the charge? In 2009 and 2010, the health insurers funneled more than $100 million to the Chamber to lead the campaign against the ACA all while claiming to publicly support the legislation.
Donohue describes the Chamber’s business model best. 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. "I want to give [member companies] all the deniability they need," he explained. He’s also said that small businesses "provide the foot soldiers, and often the political cover, for issues big companies want pursued," because Congress listens more to them than to big business.
So there you have it. The Chamber is a front group for the worst elements of the business community. It lobbies to get its anti-environment, anti-worker, anti-consumer agenda enacted into law. And to complement its lobbying, it spends big to elect Republican candidates sympathetic to this reactionary agenda. And if by dint of lobbying and elections spending, it still can’t get its way in Congress, then it goes to court, over 1100 times since 2005. This three-pronged strategy has made the Chamber a fearsome force for advancing hard right policies and opposing progressive reforms.
We hope that you’ll stick with us and read our future blogs on the Chamber. In the meantime, if you’d like to learn more, you can always visit us on www.chamberofcommercewatch.org or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.
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