How Many Members Does The Chamber Really Have?  No One Knows!

October 06, 2010 7:08 pm ET — Walid Zafar

For years, it was not uncommon to see the U.S. Chamber of Commerce described as "the strongest single business voice in Washington, representing thousands of trade associations and three million large and small businesses." As one of the best-known and well-financed lobbying groups in the country, the organization's membership figures gave it real creditability.  Those who disagreed with the Chamber's agenda were often castigated as enemies of American businesses and supporters of job-killing policies.

Last year, however, Mother Jones reported that the widely-cited "3 million" members number was grossly inflated.  The real figure was closer to 300,000 — still a significant number, but only a tenth of what the Chamber led people to believe.  Others quickly piled on.  The New York Times reported that just 19 contributors made up a third of the group's revenue.  Digging deeper, an analysis of the group's tax forms by Media Matters Action Network revealed that just 1,439 contributions accounted for 90% of the Chamber's total revenue for 2008.

Now, in light of recent reports that the Chamber may be using foreign money to finance its partisan political activities, the membership figures are once again coming under scrutiny.  Tita Freeman, a spokesperson for the group, told the Washington Post's Greg Sargent that "non-U.S. based companies" make up "a relative handful" of the group's "300,000 members." How many companies based outside of the United States does the Chamber count as members?  It won't say. The group has historically opposed increased transparency and has frequently fought tooth and nail to preserve as much secrecy in business — and in politics — as possible.

At one time, the Chamber was one of the most respected and reputable interest groups in the country.  In recent years, though, it's been reduced to shilling for one particular party, alienating millions of Americans who don't think business federations should be so clearly partisan; the group has pledged $75 million towards defeating Democrats in this year's midterm elections.  On virtually every issue, the Chamber's position is indistinguishable from the Republican Party's platform.  Despite claims that it champions the cause of job creators, the Chamber proudly and boldly promotes the virtues of outsourcing.  Its patently false attack ads, while politically effective in the short term, have made the group that now claims to represent the "interests of 3 million" businesses into a political pariah for many more millions of Americans.