The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is by far the largest lobbying group in the U.S., having spent almost $1.4 billion on lobbying the federal government in the last two decades, more than three times as much as the next largest spender. One of its main functions is to essentially act as a corporate “money laundering” machine through which companies can anonymously lobby for unpopular policies without having to face the public backlash and reputational damage they might encounter if they advocated for such things openly. As Chamber President Thomas Donohue himself has said, the Chamber intends to “give [members] all the deniability they need.” The Chamber is also one of the largest undisclosed dark money elections spenders – having spent more than $150 million on congressional races alone since 2008.
The Chamber is not a government body but at times has so much influence that it’s not far off. “The Chamber views itself as a shadow-government policymaking body,” a former U.S. Chamber economist, Lawrence Hunter said. One of the primary ways in which the Chamber exerts its tremendous influence is via lobbying.
The Chamber receives the vast majority of its roughly $275 million in annual funding from deep-pocketed entities, most of them likely giant corporations. Our 2016 report, “The Gilded Chamber 2.0,” reveals that just 74 donors each giving at least $500,000 accounted for 60 percent of the Chamber’s funding in 2014 while more than 96% of the group’s funding came from roughly 1,500 entities each contributing at least $5,000. Our 2017 report, “The Chamber of Secrets,” explores the influence of non-corporate money in the Chamber, and presents evidence that politically active non-profits and the ultra-wealthy are also funding the Chamber. As the Chamber is not legally required to disclose its donors’ identities, big corporations and other wealthy special interests can shower money on the Chamber to do their dirty work in Washington without having to worry about ever leaving their fingerprints behind.
This confidentiality is the Chamber’s most valuable asset and without it, few corporations would want their names attached to the Chamber’s controversial lobbying efforts and risk the inevitable backlash. So when the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) was considering implementing a rule that would require public companies to disclose political spending, including contributions to trade associations, the Chamber worked hard to bury the proposal. The Chamber lobbied the SEC against creating the rule and pressed Congress for a budget rider banning the finalization of the rule. Such a rule would provide valuable information to shareholders when considering both the social impact of their investments and the reputational risks a company may face. The Chamber is so desperate to keep its donors’ identities secret that it even attempted to persuade member companies not to voluntarily disclose their political spending, including contributions to trade associations.
Despite the anonymity the Chamber offers its donors, every so often, information comes to light revealing how an industry used the Chamber to lobby on its behalf for policies that would hurt average Americans. One excellent example of this pattern concerns the Affordable Care Act (also known as the ACA or Obamacare). In 2012, we learned that America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), the health insurance industry’s main lobbying group, had paid the U.S. Chamber more than $100 million in 2009 and 2010 to lobby against the ACA – all while AHIP and many big health insurance companies were supporting the ACA in public.
Recent lobbying disclosure reports filed by the Chamber reveal a focus on corporate interests in many unpopular industries. For its friends in the fossil fuel sector, the Chamber lobbied for policies that would boost oil, gas and coal profits while crippling efforts to fight climate change. For example, the Chamber lobbied for the Keystone XL pipeline and for loosening regulations on coal mining and fracking. It also advocated for the Transparency and Honesty in Environmental Regulations Act, which “prohibits the Department of Energy and the EPA from considering the social cost of carbon or methane as part of any cost benefit analysis.” Wall Street received similar attention from the Chamber at the expense of average consumers. The Chamber has fought tirelessly against the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Act since before it became law, and unfortunately this assault continues apace. For example, the Chamber lobbied for multiple bills that weaken the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC), which was designed to protect against “too big to fail” financial institutions triggering another financial crisis.
Since President Trump took office, the Chamber has found an administration that is quite receptive to its efforts. In particular, the Chamber was extremely successful in lobbying for regulatory rollbacks under the Congressional Review Act (CRA), which enables Congress to easily undo regulations finalized at the end of the previous administration. Under this act, the Chamber successfully pushed for the repeal of important rules such as the Stream Protection Rule, created to protect against water pollution from coal mining operations, and the Cardin-Lugar Anti-Corruption Rule, designed to make fossil fuel companies operating in foreign countries more transparent. On top of this, the Chamber has lobbied for the Regulatory Accountability Act, which would dramatically weaken the ability of government agencies to enact any regulations protecting consumers and the environment. The Chamber has also been a key supporter of President Trump’s tax proposals, lobbying to repeal taxes on the wealthiest Americans, such as the estate tax, that would cost the government billions of dollars in lost revenue and would personally benefit Trump’s heirs and the families of his super wealthy cabinet members. On healthcare, the Chamber has put its weight behind an incredibly unpopular Republican replacement plan that would have caused an estimated 23 million Americans to lose health insurance.
The Chamber’s elections spending is consistently toxic to American democracy, in that it is both totally opaque and often viciously negative. Just as the identities of corporations and other wealthy special interests that use the Chamber to lobby are kept secret, these same deep-pocketed entities can use the Chamber as a front group in order to spend big money in support of favored candidates without ever having their names attached to the often controversial attack ads the Chamber has made a specialty of running.
The Chamber’s elections spending is also highly partisan – in the 2012 and 2014 election cycles, the vast majority of its campaign spending opposed Democrats and supported Republicans.
The Chamber finally dropped all pretense of non-partisanship during the 2016 election cycle, when it exclusively supported Republican candidates. Forging an alliance with leading Republican luminaries to “save the Senate” for the GOP, the Chamber spent nearly $30 million in dark money on congressional races. Dark money refers to money spent on elections whose ultimate source is unknown. The Chamber was the second largest dark money spender overall in the 2016 cycle, second only to the National Rifle Association (NRA), and was the largest dark money spender on congressional races. It was also the largest outside spender in 12 of the 16 races it sought to influence. In fact, the Chamber’s partisanship runs so deep that it even attacked Indiana Democrat Evan Bayh, a former U.S. Chamber employee, during his Senate campaign in 2016.
Most recently, the Chamber has spent massive sums to support Republican candidates in 2017 special elections for House seats. The Chamber spent more than $1.1 million dollars attacking Jon Ossoff in Georgia, and also spent big on behalf of Republican candidate Greg Gianforte in Montana.
Of course, lobbying and elections spending are complementary strategies for the Chamber. If the Chamber can’t always bend Congress to its will via lobbying, it can always change the composition of Congress via elections spending.
We see this pattern at work in the healthcare example, discussed above. Despite spending more than $100 million lobbying to sink healthcare reform, the ACA ultimately became law. Since the ACA became law in 2010, control of Congress passed from the Democrats to the Republicans. The GOP takeover of Congress was of course aided by the hundreds of millions of dollars outside groups like the Chamber spent to elect Republican candidates. The U.S. Chamber spent more than $16 million between 2012 and 2016 in support of the ten senators charged with crafting the Senate version of the American Healthcare Act (AHCA), which would repeal and replace the ACA.
Many Americans can and do contribute to campaigns, but very few can contribute the eye-popping sums the Chamber spends on elections. It’s time for politicians to reject the U.S. Chamber’s shady money and for companies funding the Chamber to step out of the shadows and lobby openly – or not at all.
See what the U.S. Chamber spent on lobbying in 2016 here.