The Shade of Dark Money

Recent Senate Report Details U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Toxic Influence on Climate Policy

By: Zach Brown

The horrific wildfires currently raging across the West Coast serve as a strong reminder that we cannot overlook the hazardous situation our nation’s addiction to fossil fuels has placed us in. The climate crisis truly stops for nothing—especially not for a global health pandemic. Given how the twin crises of COVID-19 and climate change are killing Americans, we must make sure Congress is focusing on solutions to our warming planet so that we are not increasing the likelihood of future pandemics.

One part of embracing the solutions to climate change means minimizing the influence of groups that oppose strong action to reducing dangerous pollution in our atmosphere.

Opponents include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which influences elections by utilizing funds not disclosed to the public—commonly referred to as “dark money”. Recently, a report by the Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis dedicated a section to detailing dark money’s influence on our climate laws and how it directly harms efforts to adequately address the climate crisis.

The Senate committee’s report traces the history of “dark money” spending made possible through the disastrous 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. FEC, which effectively eliminated limits on political spending by organizations. The report shows how the ability of groups to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections, and without disclosing the groups’ donors, drastically altered the fight against climate change. Without effective limits on political spending, fossil fuel companies are able to flood the political process with corporate dollars and influence politicians to make policy decisions that are solely beneficial to the fossil fuel industry, tossing the wishes of the voters and a much-needed consideration for the environment by the wayside. The report raises the question how are fossil fuel companies getting away with this right under the noses of the American people?

Well, the short answer is simple: These fossil fuel executives aren’t exactly operating in plain view. Fossil fuel execs actively utilize “front groups” by funneling their money through trade associations that sow doubt about climate science. These front groups were pushing this misinformation even before Citizens United— the report details that one of the most influential front groups, the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), back in 2006  ran a TV ad with the tagline, “Carbon dioxide? They call it pollution. We call it life.” And who would fund an organization that makes statements like these? Public reports have detailed that not only is ExxonMobil a heavy contributor to CEI, but also that non-oil related corporations like Amazon and Google have supported CEI.

However, when it comes to the despicable art of working against the common human interest of ensuring a livable environment for the future, one big spender towers over the rest. The U.S Chamber of Commerce, one of the largest lobbying groups in the nation, has spent almost $150 million on congressional campaigns since Citizens United, with most going to candidates who oppose action on the climate crisis. Spanning decades, the Chamber’s activities range from funding widely debunked studies critical of environmental protection agreements to aggressively defending energy sector interests against the EPA’s Clean Power Plan in court.

Member corporations know that they can donate as many millions as they please to the Chamber of Commerce’s coffers and the Chamber will keeping their donation secret, thereby protecting the corporation from public censure if the Chamber uses the money to fight progress on addressing climate change. The report notes that the amount of money fossil fuel executives has given to the Chamber is still relatively unknown. It’s time to remove this shield.

The Senate committee’s report details both legislative and regulatory solutions to combat the Chamber’s influence on climate policy. For one, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) should engage in rulemaking that forces the companies it regulates to disclose all spending on political influence activities, including money funneled to problematic trade associations like the Chamber of Commerce. Second, Congress should pass comprehensive legislation requiring these trade associations to be fully transparent in their political and election spending, shining a much-needed light on the dark money that clogs legislative progress. We’ve already seen what this potential bill could look like: The House of Representatives bill H.R. 1 (For the People Act of 2019), which passed earlier this year, would overturn Citizens United and make other critical reforms.  We must continue to push for these provisions to become law.

If dark-money actors are going to aggressively advocate against the two-thirds of the American people who believe that the federal government needs to do more to combat climate change, they should at least have to show their faces.