[Graphic: 1912 Federal Reserve Cartoon from The Wall Street Journal”. (Harvard.edu)] By Zach Brown Source:  Public Citizen Zach Brown The U.S. Chamber of Commerce (hereinafter, “the Chamber”) routinely posits itself as the true representative of the business community, boasting a diverse membership ranging from the largest of corporate conglomerates to small local businesses. In fact, […]

[Graphic: 1912 Federal Reserve Cartoon from The Wall Street Journal”. (Harvard.edu)]

By Zach Brown
Source:  Public Citizen

Editor’s Note
The Chamber of Commerce has been under the scrutiny of various watchdog groups for a long time. It is not surprising that the majority of the Chamber’s funds are coming from a handful of donors. Nor that those are not small businesses – which the Chamber touts itself as representing. The report that Mr. Brown authored does detail the character of these donations, and Public Citizen continues to be a good watchdog over the Chamber and its shenanigans.

Editor’s Note
I have argued before that corporations are nothing more than moneymaking legal fictions for increasing the wealth and control of the scoundrel elite. What we see documented by this latest report is one of the pots used by the very wealthy to protect and advance their own interests, and the Chamber is right in the middle of those efforts. Much of the funding going to the Chamber is actually going to shaping policy and political contributions. In fact, it is pretty clear what policies the Chamber is supporting since almost 90% of its political contributions are going to Republicans, and they have continued to donate to the “Sedition Caucus” (those House and Senate representatives who voted against certifying the 2020 election).

The wealthy have many mechanisms to advance their wealth and protect their interests, and many ways to funnel their money to fund projects and people doing that work. Corporations are proxy’s for gaining wealth and power, and for funneling money out. Other mechanisms are trade groups, foundations – both family and others -, and by providing money the groups like the Chamber of Commerce to both lobby and well as support politicians, publicity campaigns, and legislative efforts. On the Chamber’s website “work” page they clearly state Shaping Policy as one of their important endeavors:

The U.S. Chamber shapes policy at the state, federal, and international levels to ensure the best opportunities to start and grow businesses. Chamber staff and members engage at every step in the process: electing leaders, advocating for better laws and regulations, and, when necessary, going to court to stop misguided policy before it hurts the economy.

Which brings us to another critical investment by both the scoundrel elite and the lackey Chamber – the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). The function of ALEC has been to create “boilerplate” legislation focused on areas of concern to the scoundrels. ALEC Exposed is an excellent website dedicated to watchdogging ALEC. Below is a short list of the types of legislation that ALEC has promoted:

Those funding ALEC are also funders of the Chamber. As noted in an article by Alex Kotch on ALEC Exposed:

Among the biggest donors are a handful of family foundations that disperse the wealth of right-wing oligarchs. The foundations of the Bradley ($3.9 million), Koch ($2.7 million), Searle ($1.7 million), Thomas W. Smith ($625,000), and Coors ($325,000) families donated $9.2 million during that time period, or 60% of the known donations to ALEC.

Other top donors to ALEC include both mainstream and ideological donor-advised fund sponsors. Sister funds DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund, which political megadonors such as Koch and the Mercers have used to anonymously donate to right-wing organizations, combined to donate $2.8 million. Commercial donor-advised fund sponsors, including the Schwab Charitable Fund ($335,000) and the Vanguard Charitable Endowment Program ($95,000), have also passed along their clients’ funds anonymously to ALEC.

The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) also has a Source Watch section, and ALEC trade groups is among the areas covered. Source Watch states:

ALEC’s agenda extends into almost all areas of law. Its bills undermine environmental regulations and deny climate changesupport school privatizationundercut health care reformdefund unions and limit their political influencerestrain legislatures’ abilities to raise revenue through taxesmandate strict election laws that disenfranchise votersincrease incarceration to benefit the private prison industryamong many other issues[3]

ALEC is an “associate” member of the State Policy Network, a web of right-wing “think tanks” in every state across the country.[4]

It is noteworthy that ALEC promotes a State Policy Network, as does the coverage of the Chamber of Commerce, and not coincidentally, the strategy for overthrowing the democracy that has been utilized by the Republican Party. To tie a bow on the orientation of the Chamber, which includes both lobbying and campaign support is reported by Source Watch as well:

The Chamber has been described as becoming “a fully functional part of the partisan Republican machine” after CEO and president Thomas J. Donohue took office in 1997. Prior to Donohue’s tenure, the Chamber “used to be a trade association that advocated in a bipartisan manner for narrowly tailored policies to benefit its members.”[5] (Source Watch: U.S. Chamber of Commerce)

Another researcher tying big money, ALEC, and the Chamber together is Craig Sandler writing for Citizen Vox in 2018, ALEC, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Kochs: Inside the World of Secret Money. The SCOTUS ruling in 2010 on Citizen United unleashed a flood of “dark money” into our political system. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse has done an exceptional job over the years shining a light on dark money and the capturing of the court. A youtube search “sheldon whitehouse dark money courts” will return a number of his presentations on this critical issue.

The Public Citizen report written by Zach Brown is worth the time to read in full, but his synopsis captures the critical findings.

View or download full report HERE or from Public Citizen

Zach Brown

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce (hereinafter, “the Chamber”) routinely posits itself as the true representative of the business community, boasting a diverse membership ranging from the largest of corporate conglomerates to small local businesses. In fact, the Chamber boldly claims to represent the interests of over 3 million businesses across the country.

And while the Chamber is well known for claiming this broad range of support it is also well known for refusing to disclose the identities of donors. In fact, the Chamber has been one of the leading opponents of proposal to require disclosure of donors to groups that engage in political activities.

However, the Chamber is legally required to provide members of the public with tax forms that include the itemized amounts of all contributions it receives of $5,000 or more. (The Chamber is permitted to redact the identities of these donors, and it did so in forms it provided to Public Citizen.) For the purpose of this report, we consider contributions of at least $5,000 to be “large” contributions.

The Chamber’s tax forms for the calendar year 2021 indicate that it received 97 percent of its contributions from about 1,300 contributors and nearly 50 percent of its money from just 46 donors. The narrow donor base casts serious doubts on the Chamber’s claims that  it represents such a broad range of business. Organizations usually serve the wishes of those that provide them with income.

Instead, this donor profile suggests that the Chamber is receiving the overwhelming share of its donations from large businesses. Most small businesses would likely not be able to afford to donate $146,000 (about the average size of the itemized contributions reported by the Chamber) to a trade association. And even if all the itemized contributions were from small businesses, 1,308 donors amount to only a paltry 0.04% of the over 3 million entities that the Chamber claims to represent. Whoever the Chamber is truly working for, it’s receiving almost all of its money from a tiny slice of U.S. businesses, assuming its donors are businesses.

For this study, we reviewed the Chamber’s recent advocacy over the last five years. And upon analysis of the Chamber’s advocacy positions, the Chamber’s actions seemingly exist in concert with the makeup of its donor base.

If the Chamber were truly advocating for the interests of three million businesses, considering the diverse needs of businesses both large and small, there are a variety of changes the organization could implement. We provide a few of these recommendations at the end of this report.

 

The Overwhelming Majority of the Chamber’s Contributions Come From Large Donors

From Public Citizen report –The Interests of the Few

First, the Chamber’s funding profile puts into question its position as a representative of 3 million businesses because its funding is made up predominantly of large donations. [See Table 1]

Of the nearly $198 million that make up the Chamber’s total 2021 contributions, 97 percent of its contributions came from donors giving at least $5,000, that is, “large donors.” This greatly undershoots the size of its actual itemized contributions, which average about $146,000.

Table 1: 97% of the Chamber’s Contributions Come From Itemized Contributions More Than $5,000

Total $ of Chamber Contributions Reported Total $ of Itemized Contributions Total # of Itemized Contributions Avg. Donation $ % Of Chamber Contributions from Itemized Contributions over $5,000
$197,461,444 $191,482,651 1,308 $146,393 97.0%

Source: U.S. Chamber of Commerce Form 990, 2021

Non-itemized contributions, i.e., those below $5,000, accounted for about $6 million, making up only 3 percent of the Chamber’s contributions. [See Table 2]

Table 2: The 3 Million Businesses the Chamber Claims To Represent Only Make Up 3% of the Chamber’s Total Contributions

Connection to Chamber Number Total Contributions Average Donation % of Total Contributions
Large Donor 1,308 $191,482,651 $146,393 97.0%
Businesses Whose Interests Chamber Claims to Represent 3,000,000 $6,078,793 $2.03 3.0%

Source: U.S. Chamber of Commerce Form 990, 2021

II. The Chamber Receives 80% of Its Large Donor Money From Those Who Give More Than the Average Amount

Even within the tiny fraction of donors who account for most of its contributions, the donor profile is extremely top heavy.

Only 234 donors gave more than the average. They accounted for  more than 80 percent of the Chamber’s total itemized contributions. [See Table 3]

Table 3: The 234 Entitites Who Gave More Than the Average Donation Made Up 82.8% of the Chamber’s Itemized Contributions

Donor Type # of Donors % of Total Itemized Donors $ % of Total Itemized Contributions
Gave more than $146,393 234 17.9% $158,607,853 82.8%
Gave less than $146,393 1,074 82.1% $32,874,798 17.2%

Source: U.S. Chamber of Commerce Form 990, 2021

III. Nearly Half of the Chamber’s Money Came From 46 Donors That Gave $1 Million or More

From Public Citizen report –The Interests of the Few

Looking at the top of the itemized contributions reveals an even more shocking reality. Nearly half of the Chamber’s money comes from just 46 donors all giving at least a million dollars. [See Table 4 and Appendix]

The lopsided nature of the Chamber’s contributions is illustrated across various donor ranges in both table and bar chart form in the Appendix.

Table 4: Just 46 Donors Gave More Than Half of the Chamber’s Total Itemized Contributions

Donation Range # of Donors Sum of Contributions % of Itemized Donors % of Total Itemized Contributions
At least $1,000,000 46 $93,156,614 3.5% 48.7%
Less than $1,000,000 1262 $98,326,037 96.5% 51.3%

Source: U.S. Chamber of Commerce Form 990, 2021

IV. A Select Few Donors at the Top of the Donor Pool Gave More Than a Quarter of the Chamber’s Money

Moving on to the very top of the Chamber’s donor base reveals an even more startling picture. The top 1.4 percent of donors provided more than a quarter of the Chamber’s itemized contributions. [See Table 5]

Table 5: Donors Who Gave More Than $2 Million Gave More than a Quarter of the Chamber’s Contributions

Donation Range # of Donors Average Donation % of Itemized Donors Total Donations % of all itemized contributions in dollar value
>$4 million 3 $5,487,047 0.2% $16,461,142 8.6%
$2 million to < $4 million 15 $2,507,464 1.1% $37,611,965

 

19.0%
Total 18 $3,004,062 1.4% $54,073,107 28.2%

Source: U.S. Chamber of Commerce Form 990, 2021

V. Just Three Donors Gave More Than Eight Percent of the Chamber’s Money

Lastly, the top three donors provided  8.3% of the Chamber’s contributions. [See Table 6 below] We believe it’s reasonable to assume that these 3 mystery donors wield a significant influence on the Chamber’s actions and activities.

Table 6: Donors Who Gave More Than $4 Million Gave 8.3% of the Chamber’s Contributions

Donation Range # of Donors Average Donation % of Itemized Donors Total Donations
>$4 million 3 $5,487,047 0.2% $16,461,142

Source: U.S. Chamber of Commerce Form 990, 2021

VI. The Chamber’s Advocacy Matches Its Funding Profile

Tax disclosures strongly suggest that the organization is funded and influenced by the largest corporate bodies in America. Why is that a problem? Because of the very positions and policy goals that the Chamber advocates for on a regular basis.

For one, the Chamber regularly advocates against actions by federal agencies such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) designed to protect consumer’s financial interests. Recently, the Chamber has joined a challenge to the CFPB’s funding model. Dismantling the CFPB would aid large businesses engaging in predatory practices such as padding their incomes by slapping junk fees on ordinary Americans.

Additionally, the Chamber advocates on behalf of large corporations against the potential federal ban on noncompete clauses in labor contracts. While noncompete clauses are also used by some small businesses, their inclusion into labor contracts is relatively common practice within the largest corporations in America. Noncompete clauses not only decrease market competition (further aiding longstanding corporate conglomerates), but make it more difficult for potential entrepreneurs to begin new businesses as the potential workforce decreases.

The Chamber also advocates for the interests of large businesses by regularly fighting against proposed increased anti-trust provisions to stop harmful corporate mergers. Large corporate mergers that hurt competition directly affect the survival of everyday small businesses. After all, federal agencies such as the FTC only come into play to enforce mergers when the transaction is more than $100 million, a far cry from the general financial affairs of smaller businesses across the nation.

The Chamber also routinely advocates for the interests of large fossil fuel companies, in so doing failing to pay heed to the increasing adversity that climate change is already causing  businesses across the country.

While large businesses may have the financial resources to recover from increasingly destructive climate calamities, small businesses may have proportionally larger financial impacts that could damage the health of the company.

The best businesses plan for the long-term, and their representatives should do the same. If the Chamber did so, it would realize that climate change is a significant threat to its donor base, their own organization, and the larger public as a whole.

The lopsided nature of the Chamber’s advocacy mirrors the lopsided nature of their donor pool.

VII. A Few Recommendations for the Chamber

The Chamber claims to represent the interests of 3 million businesses, however here are a few recommendations for how it could better broaden its scope to truly represent that broad swath of the economy.

  • The Chamber should begin freely disclosing the identity of its donors. Added transparency would not only add to the legitimacy of the organization, but also add an additional layer of accountability for the Chamber’s advocacy actions on behalf of 3 million businesses nationwide. And of course, if their decisions are truly being made in the best interest of the broader business community, it will only help them grow as an association to be recognized as such.
  • The Chamber’s advocacy on behalf of environmentally harmful legacy industries such as the fossil fuel industry directly impacts the future health and prosperity of businesses nationwide. Supporting long-term projects such as the Keystone XL pipeline, which would solidify our nation’s reliance on fossil fuels, moves the nation backwards regarding a shift to renewable energies. Fully leaning into the movement to transition corporate America to utilize clean, renewable energy sources could go a long way towards helping the full gamut of businesses the Chamber claims to represent.
  • The Chamber should reverse course and begin encouraging more thorough and robust antitrust enforcement. It is inconsistent with the Chamber’s claims to represent such a large group of business interests to fight against mechanisms that would enhance competition. Small business is well-served by a more competitive marketplace.
  • Lastly, the Chamber should focus its efforts overall on policies and actions that benefit the whole of the business landscape, rather than just the largest corporations. Legislative and rulemaking that may benefit a small subset of mega-companies while harming the overall business landscape should not be advocated for by the organization.

After all, the Chamber’s mission statement claims “For all of the people across the businesses we represent, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is a trusted advocate, partner, and network, helping them improve society and people’s lives.”

It’s time for the Chamber’s actions to match its mission.