One of the biggest “dark money” spenders in next week’s elections is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. But while the Chamber's funding sources may be murky, its aims — unlike those of some wealthy super PAC donors — are relatively transparent.
The 100-year-old nonprofit organization has a far reaching public lobbying agenda that ranges from high profile fights like working to reverse parts of the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank financial reform law to more obscure issues like keeping flight information about corporate jets secret and opposing tighter regulation of the transportation of highly flammable lithium batteries.
Two Sunlight tools — Follow the Unlimited Money and our forthcoming Docket Wrench — help paint a picture of how the Chamber's pre-election spending can pay off in post-election clout.
The Chamber has reported independent expenditures of nearly $32 million in nine Senate and 18 House races, as well as $3.3 million on electioneering ads, according to Sunlight’s Follow the Unlimited Money tracker. The great majority of that—some 86 percent—bought negative ads. The $3.3 million figure likely understates the amount they've spent on issue ads, which do not specifically advocate the election or defeat of a federal candidate. Issue ads that fall outside the 30-day window before primaries or the 60-day window before the general election aren't reported to the Federal Election Commission; nor is spending on other types of advertisements, such as billboards.
The business league reported spending $4.4 million to oppose Democrat Tim Kaine in his run against Republican George Allen for the Virginia Senate seat, a race that's attracted more outside spending than any other in Congress. It's dropped $4.3 million against Ohio Democrat Sen. Sherrod Brown in his contest with Republican Josh Mandel, another race that's been a magnet for outside cash. In some cases, the Chamber is the top outside spender in a given race outside party committees, such as New Mexico's Senate contest and California's 9th House district.
An examination of federal lobbying records and of regulatory filings via Sunlight's still-in-development Docket Wrench shows how the Chamber's political spending dovetails with an extensive lobbying agenda on Capitol Hill and in the regulatory agencies. The Chamber and its affiliates have reported spending $55.4 million through June on federal lobbying this calendar year alone. It employs 169 lobbyists, half of whom have been through the revolving door and three of whom are former members of Congress. Its latest lobbying disclosure form runs 39 pages.
The group's recent focus has been largely on "reduc[ing] the burden of the new health care law," and implementation of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law. In addition to its efforts in Congress to roll back or tweak parts of the new laws, the group is an active participant in the regulatory process, filing numerous comments with federal agencies, according to documents located via Sunlight's Docket Wrench tool. For example, last February, the Chamber signed on with other business groups to this letter to financial agencies asserting that the "Volcker Rule will have far-reaching negative consequences that will impede our ability to raise capital and manage risk." The groups asked the regulators to refrain from implementing the proposed rule, meant to prohibit banks from engaging in proprietary trading. Agencies have yet to issue a final version of the rule.
The Chamber has sent at least four letters to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on different aspects of the health care law, including grandfathered health plans, rate increase disclosure, and two on pre-existing conditions. Its also weighed in with the Internal Revenue Service on the creation of health care exchanges.
The Chamber's reach goes far into the weeds on a whole host of issues. This year alone, the Chamber has weighed in on numerous other regulatory issues, from safety regulations regarding the transport of flammable lithium batteries, to ambient air quality standards at the EPA, to paperwork requirements for employers of foreign workers.
Case in point: the battle over whether the Federal Aviation Administration could tighten standards before allowing businesses and other private owners to keep secret the identity of corporate jets as they cruise in and out of the nation's airports.
The Chamber group signed on to a letter in March 2011 to the Federal Aviation Administration, protesting a new proposed policy that would have restricted privacy to aircraft owners who could show a security concern. The FAA had acted following a lawsuit by the National Business Aviation Association, which sued the agency–and lost–to try to keep the records secret following a Freedom of Information Act request by ProPublica. ProPublica became interested in obtaining the flight information after high profile cases criticizing corporations, such as failed insurance giant AIG, for spending big on a fleet of corporate jets while benefiting from a government bailout. ProPublica noted that there had been a long standing public dispute over whether or not private jet owners pay their fair share to support the nation's air traffic system.
But for the Chamber, it was a matter of privacy. "Privacy of movement is a fundamental American value," wrote the Chamber along with the Business Roundtable and the National Association of Manufacturers. "We believe the federal government should, to the greatest extent possible, protect such information rather than transmit it to anyone in the world with a computer connection."
The issue played out on Capitol Hill, which was putting together a reauthorization bill for the agency. The Chamber supported legislation that would allow private jet owners to keep data on the activities of their aircraft secret. Eventually, language was included in the 2012 FAA budget that did just that. In December 2011, the agency issued a notice reversing its proposal– and the Chamber and its allies claimed a victory.
(Illustration credit: U.S. Chamber of Commerce