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Is Corporate America’s Lobbying Machine Hiding Its Donors?

Democrats Elizabeth Warren and Sheldon Whitehouse are taking aim at the fossil-fuel-backed U.S. Chamber of Commerce

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Shutterstock, Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/POOL

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is a goliath-sized influence machine in the nation’s capital. From its imposing Beaux Arts headquarters a block north of the White House, it has spent $1.5 billion on lobbying over the last two decades — more than any other interest group — to push lawmakers and government bureaucrats to take a more business-friendly tack. And here’s the kicker: The Chamber has done so while revealing almost nothing about who funds it operations and who its most important members are.

Now, Senators Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) are asking for an investigation into whether the Chamber has failed to disclose its funders and members as required by law. Whitehouse, one of Congress’ most vocal opponents of dark money, says he suspects that undisclosed fossil-fuel-industry money is driving the Chamber’s agenda as oil, gas, and coal companies fight to protect their tax breaks and head off legislation that could hurt their bottom lines.

In a new letter, Whitehouse and Warren asks the clerk of the House of Representatives and the Secretary of the Senate to examine whether the Chamber has violated the law by failing to reveal the affiliated companies or organizations that fund and help guide its vast lobbying operation. The Chamber has deployed more than 130 lobbyists this year to work on its behalf, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, and it pushes for policies such as lowering corporate tax rates, blocking the EPA’s Clean Power Plan that would phase out coal-fired power plants, and weakening the post-crash Dodd-Frank financial regulations. The Chamber also files briefs in Supreme Court cases and spends huge sums of money to elect pro-business representatives and senators.

After the downfall of corrupt superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, Congress passed the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007. The law required, among other reforms, that industry front groups like the Chamber name any companies or individuals that donated at least $5,000 over a three-month period toward the group’s lobbying work while also actively participating in “the planning, supervision, or control of such lobbying activities.”

According to Whitehouse’s letter, the Chamber boasts on its website about its “Elite” and “C100” membership tiers that give companies a spot on “one of more than 30 U.S. Chamber Policy Committees” where they can “help define Chamber positions.” Yet despite the evidence that corporations who belong to the Chamber are helping dictate its positions (and undoubtedly paying handsomely for the right to do so), the names of these companies are absent from the Chamber’s lobbying disclosure records starting in mid-2016 and continuing to this day.

“Given this lack of disclosure, we believe that the Chamber may not be in compliance with the LDA’s requirement that it disclose affiliated organizations that fund and actively participate in its lobbying activities,” Whitehouse writes.

The Chamber did not respond to a request for comment on Whitehouse’s letter.

Whitehouse tells Rolling Stone that he’s taken a special interest in the Chamber because of its outsized influence both in the policymaking realm and in U.S. elections. In addition to lobbying, the Chamber pumped $143 million into independent spending in federal elections since 2010, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, making it one of the most feared outside groups. Most of that campaign money, campaign records show, went to elect Republicans.

“The Chamber being anonymously funded is a significant failure in our democracy,” Whitehouse says. “They occupy both the public debate space, the registered lobbying space, and the electioneering space. That allows them a fourth space, which is to be able to threaten and promise and manipulate in the complete dark based on their power to do the other things.”

Whitehouse’s fixation on dark money — he’s spoken out against it on the Senate floor — is intertwined with his focus on fossil-fuel companies that he sees as obstacles to Congress addressing the global climate crisis. While there’s some public evidence that oil and gas companies have supported the Chamber’s election efforts, Whitehouse says that he believes there’s much more to be uncovered about the fossil-fuel industry’s funding of the Chamber and of the Chamber’s fronting for oil, gas, and coal companies.

“We see them turning up in the climate fight always on the wrong side,” he says.

When you take stock of all the ways the Chamber influences American politics and government and the vast sums of money at its disposal, he adds, “you’ve got an extremely powerful force — powerful enough that the people ought to know who the hell they’re fronting for.”

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Read Whitehouse and Warren’s letter about the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its funders:

Julie Adams
Secretary of the Senate
United States Senate
Washington, DC 20510

 Dear Ms. Adams:

We write to request that your office determine whether the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (the Chamber) is in compliance with the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA). 

In 2007, Congress strengthened the LDA through the passage of Section 207 of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, the objective of which was to provide the public with information about the membership of lobbying coalitions and associations. Section 207 amended the LDA to require disclosure of entities that contributes at least $5,000 in a quarterly period toward a coalition or association’s “lobbying activities” and that “actively participate in the planning, supervision or control of such lobbying activities.”[1]

Guidance issued by the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House of Representatives defines such entities as “affiliated organizations” and defines the term “actively participates.”[2]  The template lobbying report form developed by the Secretary and the Clerk provides for disclosure of “affiliated organizations” on line 25 of the form. If a lobbying coalition or association publicly lists its members or contributors on its website, no further disclosure is required.[3]

We examined the Chamber’s lobbying reports from 2008, the year that the requirement to disclose affiliated organizations went into effect, through the first quarter of 2019.  Starting with its second quarter 2016 report and continuing through to its first quarter 2019 report, the Chamber did not disclose any information relating to affiliated organizations.[4]  Prior to the second quarter 2016 report, the Chamber periodically disclosed various website addresses on line 25 of its disclosure forms. However, in all but one instance, the websites referenced by the Chamber do not include information on affiliated organizations. In the one instance where it did disclose affiliated organizations, the Chamber’s list appears to be incomplete and only includes members of an anti-counterfeiting coalition.[5] The Chamber also does not publicly disclose its members or contributors.[6]

Based upon information provided by Chamber member companies, it is our understanding that policy and lobbying decisions within the Chamber are made by member companies that participate on one or more internal Chamber policy committees.  Indeed, the Chamber’s website references these committees, noting that “Elite” and “C100” members get to serve on “one of more than 30 U.S. Chamber Policy Committees” whose “members help define Chamber positions….”[7]

Given this lack of disclosure, we believe that the Chamber may not be in compliance with the LDA’s requirement that it disclose affiliated organizations that fund and actively participate in its lobbying activities.  The Chamber’s practice also appears to be inconsistent with the disclosures made by the largest trade and professional associations, the majority of which appear to comply with the LDA’s requirement to disclose affiliated organizations.[8] 

In enacting the LDA, Congress found that “the effective public disclosure of the identity and extent of the efforts of paid lobbyists to influence Federal officials in the conduct of Government actions will increase public confidence in the integrity of Government.”[9]  As the Chamber spends more on federal lobbying than any other entity, its failure to comply with the law would raise questions regarding Congress’s ability to track the efforts of special interests to influence public policy. Powerful interest groups should not be allowed to flout transparency requirements designed to promote public confidence in our government.

The LDA requires that the Secretary and the Clerk “review, and, where necessary, verify and inquire to ensure the accuracy, completeness, and timeliness of registration and reports.”[10] If a lobbying organization fails to appropriately respond within 60 days of having received a written notice of noncompliance by the Secretary or the Clerk, the matter must be referred to the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia.[11]

Accordingly, we ask you to review the Chamber’s lobbying disclosure reports and determine whether the Chamber is in compliance with the LDA and Section 207 of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act. Should you determine that the Chamber is not in compliance, we ask that you take appropriate steps to ensure that its future lobbying reports are compliant and that its past lobbying reports are amended to bring them into compliance.

[1] 2 U.S.C. §1603(b)(3)

[2] Lobbying Disclosure Act Guidance, last revised Jan. 31, 2017, available at https://lobbyingdisclosure.house.gov/ldaguidance.pdf [lobbyingdisclosure.house.gov]

[3] 2 USC §1603(b)(7)

[4] See, e.g., First Quarter 2019 Lobbying Report, Chamber of Commerce of the U.S.A., available at https://soprweb.senate.gov/index.cfm?event=getFilingDetails&filingID=CFF4535D-F93F-4B7D-8234-BCDAE6D80F59&filingTypeID=51 [soprweb.senate.gov]

[5] See, e.g., First Quarter 2016 Lobbying Report, Chamber of Commerce of the U.S.A., available at https://soprweb.senate.gov/index.cfm?event=getFilingDetails&filingID=2F495D6E-9760-4419-9DD0-2D3A06E057E5&filingTypeID=51 [soprweb.senate.gov]

[6] The Chamber does disclose the members of its Board of Directors on its website, see, Board of Directors, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, available at https://www.uschamber.com/about/board-of-directors [uschamber.com], but this is a small subset of the Chamber’s contributing membership, so does not satisfy 2 USC §1603(b)(7). 

[7] Membership, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, available at https://www.uschamber.com/members/associations/membership [uschamber.com]

[8] The top 15 trade and professional associations by 2018 federal lobbying spending.  They are, in descending order, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Realtors (NAR), PhRMA, the American Hospital Association (AHA), the Business Roundtable, the American Medical Association (AMA), the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), NCTA The Internet and Television Association, CTIA – The Wireless Association, the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), the American Chemistry Council (ACC), the National Retail Federation (NRF), the American Petroleum Institute (API), and America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP).  Ten of the top 15 (PhRMA, AHA, the Business Roundtable, AMA, NCTA, CTIA, BIO, ACC, API, and AHIP) list their members on their website. One of the top 15 (NAM) provides a url on line 25 of its quarterly lobbying reports that directs to a list of affiliated organizations. Only the Chamber, NAR, NAB, and NRF neither disclose their members on their website nor provide responsive information on line 25 of their quarterly lobbying reports.   

[9] 2 U.S.C. §1601(3)

[10] 2 U.S.C. §1605(a)(2)

[11] 2 U.S.C. §1605(a)(8)

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