The Chamber of Commerce Is Apparently Not Just a Coalition of Small Businesses

Chamber of Commerce president Tom Donahue, straight from central casting.
Chamber of Commerce president Tom Donahue, straight from central casting. Photo: EVERETT KENNEDY BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

A big Times story reveals which big corporations gave to the Chamber of Commerce last year, when it was kicking its campaigns against regulation into high gear. The chamber is the biggest lobbyist in Washington, spending $200 million this year without having to disclose its donors, but the Times was able to glean some information by looking at "obscure places," such as old corporate governance reports of big companies and foundation tax filings. It's no surprise to find out that companies like Prudential ($2 million) or Dow Chemical ($1.7 million) were big donors last year.

The chamber has spent millions of dollars opposing cap and trade, health-care reform, financial regulation, and the Democratic members of Congress who voted for more regulation. More interesting is the extent to which the chamber really is in the pocket of a few big donors. As the article puts it, "While the chamber boasts of representing more than three million businesses, and having approximately 300,000 members, nearly half of its $140 million in contributions in 2008 came from just 45 donors."

And then there's the chamber's official foundation, which has been very critical of federal regulation. There, the Times found that "seven donors gave the foundation at least $17 million between 2004 and 2008, about two-thirds of the total raised." Those donors included the likes of Goldman Sachs (which recently promised not to directly spend money on political ads) and Texaco.

The chamber plans to spend $75 million on campaigns this cycle, and we won't know who's funding it until next year, if ever. Everyone involved has plausible deniability, as money cannot be earmarked for specific campaigns, and, as one staffer said, the giant corporations that keep the group alive "are not anywhere near a room when we are making a decision" about which campaigns to spend money on. And they also come across like the caricatures of villains, at least according to members that spoke to the Times. “Unless you spend $250,000 to $500,000 a year, that is what they want for you to be one of their pooh-bahs, otherwise, they don’t pay any attention to you at all," said one anonymous executive.

Top Companies Aid Chamber of Commerce in Policy Fights [NYT]