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January 02, 2017

US Chamber Targeted Senate in 2016 Dark Money Spending
    by Robert Kropp

Public Citizen reports that only the National Rifle Association spent more than the Chamber of Commerce’s $30 million during the 2016 federal election.

A few years ago, I applied for an investigative journalism fellowship with the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. The monograph I proposed to write would have addressed the activities of the United States Chamber of Commerce, specifically its spending on federal elections.

“In January 2010,” I wrote in my proposal, “came the US Supreme Court's controversial Citizens United decision, which effectively removed limits to corporate political spending. The Chamber had a hand in that decision, having filed a brief before the Court in which it argued 'that the fact that a speaker is a corporation is not a constitutional basis for suppressing its independent political speech.'”

Alas, my proposal failed to sway the arbiters at Harvard, and I did not receive the fellowship. I did, however, continue to report on the Chamber's efforts to influence federal elections through its expenditure of millions of dollars in membership fees. I was pleased as well to see sustainable investment firms, often coordinated by Walden Asset Management, engage with corporations in an effort to have them disclose their payments to trade associations such as the Chamber.

For, as the Public Citizen project
US Chamber Watch reminds us, the Chamber, as a 501(c) nonprofit, “is not legally required to disclose the sources of the money it independently spends on elections.” Indeed, the project quotes Chamber President Thomas Donohue as stating that “the Chamber is in the business of providing 'reinsurance' to companies that need help lobbying for positions that aren't publicly or politically palatable.”

“The Chamber is a front group for the worst elements of the business community,” US Chamber Watch states. “It lobbies to get its anti-environment, anti-worker, anti-consumer agenda enacted into law. And to complement its lobbying, it spends big to elect Republican candidates sympathetic to this reactionary agenda.”

The extent to which the Chamber sought to influence the 2016 elections is outlined in a recently published
report by US Chamber Watch. Report author Grace Aylmer found that the Chamber “was the second largest overall non-disclosing (or 'dark money') outside spender in 2016 federal races after the National Rifle Association, and was the largest non-disclosing outside spender on 2016 congressional races.” Furthermore, the Chamber was by far the largest dark money spender in US Congressional races, where $25.8 million of its total expenditure of almost $30 million.

“In the 2016 election cycle,” Aylmer wrote, “the Chamber took partisanship to even greater heights. For the first time ever, 100% of the Chamber’s elections spending benefited Republicans.”

“When the nation’s leading business group can form an explicit alliance with one of our two major parties and then together solicit unlimited donations from anonymous donors, it is clear that our post-Citizens United world has become the equivalent of the Wild West,” the report concludes. “Corporations that fund the Chamber should ask themselves if they want to continue funding an organization that has become aggressively partisan in nature, one that advances a reactionary anti-environmental, anti-worker, anti-consumer agenda.”

Much of the groundwork achieved by sustainable investment firms such as Walden has been provided by the
Center for Political Accountability (CPA), which collaborates with sustainable shareowners to persuade corporations to disclose political expenditures, including payments to trade associations such as the Chamber. CPA reports that companies have thus far disclosed at least $83 million in previously hidden payments to politically active trade associations, and 68 companies are either disclosing or restricting such payments.

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