The U.S. Chamber Outspends, Outshouts Average Citizens

An epic financial collapse caused by greed and fraud that throws millions out of work. Nearly 50 million Americans without health insurance. A climate crisis that threatens our children’s and grandchildren’s future. As the nation turned its attention to fixing serious problems that have festered for years, U.S. Chamber CEO Tom Donohue raised an unprecedented $100 million to fight every legislative change being debated on Capitol Hill.

"In positioning itself as an arm for the Republican Party, the Chamber has cast doubt on its own credibility."-Washington Post Editorial, 10/27/09

In 2009, as the health care reform debate heated up, the U.S. Chamber secretly collected $86 million from major health insurance companies to run ads falsely attacking the proposed legislation as a major budget buster (it actually saves the government money). Before the ink was dry, the U.S. Chamber announced it was raising $75 million to fight implementation and back candidates willing to vote for repeal of the new law.

The U.S. Chamber greeted efforts to protect average Americans from predatory lenders and unfair credit card fees with a multi-million-dollar ad campaign attacking the proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency. Even President Obama felt compelled to slam the Chamber’s ads, which said the new agency would hurt consumer credit, as “completely false.”

And as the U.S. Chamber geared up to deploy its nearly 100 lobbyists on Capitol Hill to fight reform measures, Donohue, who earned $3.7 million in total compensation in 2009, flew around the country on a private jet raising more cash for the operation. Under Donohue’s “pay-to-play” funding scheme, the U.S. Chamber’s overall budget has soared to more than $200 million a year, four times the size of the organization he took over in 1996.

Where does the money to build Donohue’s corporate lobbying machine come from? No one knows. The U.S. Chamber keeps its donors list secret, although analysis of IRS documents revealed that just 16 contributors firms accounted for nearly 55 percent of the U.S. Chamber budget in 2009.

The Supreme Court has made it easier for this pay-to-play political machine. The Roberts court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission struck down over 60 years of campaign finance law and opened the floodgates for corporations to make unlimited and anonymous contributions to an organization like the U.S. Chamber, which can then funnel the money to buy the candidates it prefers.

Over the summer of 2010, the U.S. Chamber began its electioneering efforts in earnest.  The national staff launched an “Astroturf” grass roots organization called “Friends of the U.S. Chamber” that was planning “the largest, most aggressive voter education and issue advocacy effort” in the U.S. Chamber’s history.

Through its ads, the U.S. Chamber has shown that it is more concerned with electing particular candidates than educating the public.   For example, Salon documented how in Arkansas, the U.S. Chamber ran ads praising a candidate for advocating policies aimed at granting preferences to American business -- policies the U.S. Chamber in Washington DC actually opposed.  After the U.S. Chamber ran TV and radio ads in the 2009 Virginia’s governor race, the Washington Post felt compelled to point out that the U.S. Chamber’s campaign was “indifferent to the truth.”

“In positioning itself as an arm for the Republican Party, the Chamber has cast doubt on its own credibility,” the Post concluded. Indeed, the Chamber’s ability to raise unlimited cash from anonymous corporations and to spend that cash in elections in a partisan fashion threatens to drown out every other voice in our democracy.