The Chamber of Commerce & Big Business: Transforming Democracy into Corporatocracy One State at a Time
Earlier this month, The Guardian published an investigation into the network of politicians, donors, and groups that raised tens of millions of dollars to defend Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and several Wisconsin state senators who faced recall elections in 2011 and 2012. They also looked at conservative Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice David Prosser, Jr., who was up for re-election in 2011.
It is estimated that an astounding $137 million was spent on the recall races, with millions more spent on the Supreme Court race. The Guardian exposé, based on over 1500 pages of leaked emails and other documents, gives us a bird’s eye view into the dirty business of raising boatloads of cash from corporate special interests and the very rich.
This trove of leaked documents is particularly important because Wisconsin law does not require the disclosure of monies spent on “issue advocacy” ads that praise or criticize a candidate without explicitly calling on voters to vote for or against the candidate. Many groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, ran “issue advocacy” ads in these races, and therefore their names do not appear in publicly available databases of elections spending in Wisconsin. The leaked documents offer the public a chance to peak behind the legal curtain that shields deep-pocketed special interest groups from having to disclose their electioneering activities.
ChamberWatch wanted to learn more about the role played by the Chamber in financing the deluge of ads that dominated the airwaves in the months leading up to these elections. So we reviewed the 1500 pages of leaked documents that The Guardian made available online.
We found that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as well as the Wisconsin state chamber, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, played major roles as outside spenders in these races, particularly in the Supreme Court race.
Tellingly, when Walker’s chief fundraising consultant laid out an initial blueprint for funding his recall election, she listed the Chamber’s Institute for Legal Reform as a major potential donor along with the Koch brothers, Sheldon Adelson, major corporations, and CEOs of major corporations, among others.
The primary evidence that the Chamber spent money on behalf of Walker comes from an email sent by Chamber head of communications Tom Collamore to one of Walker’s campaign consultants. The email includes a Wall Street Journal article about a $2 million ad buy by the Wisconsin state chamber promoting Walker. (The total spent by the state chamber on the recall elections was at least $4.7 million). The consultant then forwards the email, writing “Tom is a good friend…we have had many conversations about Scott…they know the significance of this race and that is why they are so supportive…and will continue to be so.”
Unfortunately, none of the leaked documents indicate exactly how much money the Chamber spent on the governor’s race. However, we know that a PAC associated with the Republican Governors Association was one of the largest outside spenders in the governor’s race. We also know that the Chamber gave $1.25 million in 2012 to the RGA, making it the sixth largest donor to the group. Of course, we don’t know how much if any of this money was spent in Wisconsin.
The evidence of Chamber elections spending is even more clear cut with respect to the Supreme Court election. One of Walker’s top advisors writes that he assumes the Chamber is in for a minimum of $1.1 million for the Supreme Court race. A subsequent email from the same advisor mentions a Chamber ad buy of $1.5 million for the Supreme Court race. Judging by estimates of total spending it is a safe bet that the Chamber was one of the largest if not the largest spender on the Supreme Court race.
The leaked documents also reveal that at the same time the U.S. Chamber and Wisconsin state chamber were showering Walker and Prosser with money, the state chamber was also providing corporations including Altria, Walmart, Kimberly-Clark, Xcel Energy and AT&T access to Walker as well as lobbying him on unemployment insurance and workers compensation.
And therein lies the reason why the Chamber and the large corporations it represents were “so supportive” of Walker and Prosser and why they spent so much money bolstering their reelection campaigns. Walker and his conservative allies in the state legislature were receptive to lobbying by Big Business pushing an anti-worker agenda. They had just passed a major bill eviscerating worker rights and protections. And Prosser could be counted on to protect this legislation from any legal challenges. Without Walker, without a conservative majority in the state legislature, or without Prosser, not only would it have been possible to undo the damage done by this legislation, but Big Business would no longer have the opportunity to get additional items on its anti-worker wish list enacted into law and upheld by the courts.
The leaked Wisconsin documents paint a picture of a political system almost entirely reliant on—and beholden to—big money corporate donors. And the U.S. Chamber and its affiliates stand at the nexus of this unholy alliance between Big Business and the political class. Perhaps it’s time to admit the obvious: our democracy is now a corporatocracy.