Find us on:
The U.S. Chamber - A Multi-Million Dollar Shell Game
In the late summer of 2009, with the health care reform debate heating up, ads began appearing all over the country attacking the legislation. Months later, the National Journal revealed that major insurers including Aetna, Cigna, Humana, UnitedHealth Group and WellPoint had funneled between $10 million and $20 million to the U.S. Chamber to fund the campaign. Meanwhile, America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry trade association, continued to public voice support for reform.The duplicitous campaign is typical of the role the U.S. Chamber plays in corporate lobbying since CEO Tom Donohue took over the organization in 1996. He’s quadrupled its budget to $200 million annually (as of October 2009) and built the most powerful anti-reform lobbying force in Washington. And he’s done it by soliciting large donations from a small group of CEOS of very large corporations who want to keep their lobbying agendas secret.
Last year, nearly 40 percent of the U.S. Chamber’s contributions came from just 25 contributors. While it claims 3 million members, the U.S. Chamber’s three biggest (and anonymous) donors accounted for nearly one in every five dollars raised by the lobbying firm, which operates as a non-profit trade association.
The Wall Street Journal unmasked the strategy as early as 2001. Donohue’s big innovation was setting up separate accounts to take in money for projects on behalf of individual companies and industries. It allowed corporations “to use the Chamber as a means of anonymously pursuing their own political ends,” the Journal reported. Unlike most Washington trade groups that concentrate on narrow concerns and shun partisan politics, the U.S. Chamber has allowed itself to be bought by its largest donors, who are driving an inflexible, highly partisan agenda.
The hallmarks of U.S. Chamber campaigns are anonymity and misrepresentation. The website for its campaign to “Stop the Consumer Financial Protection Agency” does not reveal which banks and credit card companies financed the multi-million dollar lobbying and advertising campaign attacking the proposed agency. The ads featured small businesses complaining the agency would crack down on tiny businesses that offer store credit. “The Chamber was surely engaging in hyperbole,” the New York Times’ “You’re the Boss” column reported. “Even President Obama weighed in to point out that running a tab hardly qualifies as ‘financial services’ subject to regulation.”
With the 2010 Congressional elections looming, the U.S. Chamber has stepped up its anonymous fundraising to build a huge war chest to unseat supporters of health care reform, financial services reform and climate change legislation. The Los Angeles Times reports that U.S. Chamber fundraising for the year is expected to soar well above the $144 million raised last year, with much of it earmarked for local ads targeting Democratic incumbents during the fall elections.
The template? The U.S. Chamber ran $1 million in so-called “issue ads” in the final days of the Massachusetts race that elected Republican Scott Brown, who won the race with the U.S. Chamber’s support and quickly voted with their position against health care reform legislation. Tom Donohue called it the model for their 2010 effort.