U.S. Chamber Of Commerce Bankrolled By Small Number Of Contributors

December 09, 2009 12:16 pm ET — Walid Zafar

The Washington, D.C.-based United States Chamber of Commerce, which boasts 3 million members and very deep pockets, is commonly referred to as the world's largest business federation.  Such a reputation has for years secured the group the distinction as the unofficial spokesman of American capitalism.  Accordingly, the Chamber has enjoyed unrivaled access and power within the halls of Congress, particularly during the Bush administration.

"The Chamber of Commerce may not have ruled the country during the Bush years" observes Daniel Gross, "But it had the next best thing: a Republican administration in the White House and Republican control of Congress for most of that period."

With the election of President Barack Obama, however, the Chamber suddenly finds itself on the outside, looking in.  Increasingly, the Chamber's platform has become indistinguishable from the Republican opposition.  In recent months, a darker, more nefarious side to the Chamber has emerged, one that breaks from the group's image as the promoter of American ingenuity and entrepreneurship. 

The Chamber is at the forefront of the campaign against health care reform, climate change legislation and a proposed consumer protection agency.  "The U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- the self-proclaimed voice of business in Washington" writes former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, "has been wrong on virtually every major public-policy issue of the past decade." 

For years, their wrong stance mirrored the similarly wrong policies of a Republican White House.  But no more. 

While it has spent millions on lobbying and advertising in order to affect the policy debate, the Chamber's hostile positions to many of President Obama's most important domestic policies, has exposed it as a right-wing advocacy outfit, not really a business lobby but a lobby for big corporations.

In the words of Taylor Lincoln, research director of Congress Watch at Public Watch, the Chamber's "priorities are stacked in favor of much large businesses."

A Media Matters Action Network analysis of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's 2008 tax return shows that the powerful business group, which purports to represent the interest of American businesses, is almost entirely funded by a small number of contributors.  Our work expands on a November 23 article in the New York Times, which examined the Chamber's deep-pocketed contributors.  The Times' analysis of the Chamber's 990 filed with Internal Revenue Service revealed that 19 contributors provided the group with a third of its total revenue. 

Our analysis went one step further.  A total of 1,439 contributed more than 90% of the $139,924,246 that the group received in contributions and grants in 2008.

The new information casts further doubt on the Chamber's claim that it is representing U.S. businesses.  In fact, it seems that the group's policy views are inextricably linked to its small numbers of financiers.  Josh Goldstein, a spokesperson for American Rights at Work, describes it in a similar way.

"This K Street mammoth has opposed some of the most popular, successful, and critical policy programs in recent history. Increasingly, the public is seeing what the Chamber truly is: a small group of lobbyists who will stop at nothing to line their pockets at the expense of others."

The law requires that the Chamber reveal this information to the IRS and afterwards to the general public.  But only the IRS - and not the public - must be told the source of the revenue.  The copy obtained by Media Matters Action Network lists amounts but information on the contributors is omitted.

For example, one contributor gave the Chamber $15.3 million, a sum representing nearly 11% of its total contributions.  It is unclear whether the contribution comes from one company or a trade group, such as the American Petroleum Institute, which itself represents many companies.

Nevertheless, it seems highly unlikely that the Chamber's policy objectives would not put the interests of deep-pocketed contributors ahead of the interest of the business community at-large.  Taylor Lincoln is similarly dismayed:  "If this is true, it really brings into question their claim that they represent 3 million American businesses.  It is hard to fathom that they are representing their members when their funding comes from so few sources."

A request for comment from the US Chamber of Commerce regarding their contributors went unanswered.

In November, Media Matters Action launched Conservative Transparency, a new database that allows users to track the money flowing into the coffers of conservative groups from the nation's largest corporations and ideologically extreme organizations.

The 90% figure was calculated by adding the 1439 contributions and grants that the Chamber listed on its 990.