Archive for the ‘Campaign Finance’ Category

For more than a decade, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has been known for its sizable lobbying expenditures, but now it’s embarking on what CNN is calling “the most aggressive political cycle in its 102-year history.”

The world’s largest business association reported spending $35 million on behalf of candidates in 2012, likely spending $50 million total, including unreported expenditures. So far, during the 2014 election cycle, the Chamber has spent about $17 million on U.S. Senate and U.S. House races, getting involved early, in primaries, to an extent it hasn’t done previously. It’s promising to spend at least $50 million once again in this cycle. Given that the Chamber’s membership is secret, these tens of millions come from corporate sources that are mostly unknown – though we do know that most of the Chamber’s donors are large.

Unlike its more moderate incarnations in decades past, the Chamber now strongly favors conservatives. As CNN notes, the Chamber this cycle has endorsed 258 Republican candidates and just two Democratic candidates, though it says more of the latter are on the way. Six years ago, it endorsed 38 Democrats.

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by Emily Peterson-Cassin

As the Senate Rules Committee meets today to discuss transparency in elections, there’s a valuable asset in the fight against secret money that won’t be on the agenda: an IRS rulemaking that could change the definition for political activity by nonprofits and put a speed limit on dark money spending.

Nonprofits registered under tax code sections 501(c)(4) and 501(c)(6) have been spending millions attempting to sway voters, particularly after the Supreme Court’s devastating decision in Citizens United that allowed corporations to spend unlimited money to influence elections. These political operatives avoid disclosing their donors, and their influence is growing. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, three times more dark money spending has taken place in 2014 than at this point during 2012. This is notable since 2012 was a presidential campaign year and political spending is generally lower in midterm election years.

The IRS’s current, vague standard for what counts as political activity is like a traffic sign that says “go whatever speed you want.”

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Emily Peterson-Cassin co-authored this post.

Once again this week, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce practiced the classic misdirection magic trick, this time using an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) rulemaking as a diversion. But begging us to “Look at my right hand, not my left hand!” won’t work this time.

In a blog post this week, Chamber President Tom Donohue rehashed the conspiracy theory that the IRS is seeking to somehow restrict free speech, a conspiracy theory that’s spurred by the desire to keep a political scandal in the news until the midterm elections in November, and to reframe campaign finance reform as anything other than beneficial to democracy. He’s hoping to scare the public while drawing the absurd comparison between their ability to spend millions manipulating elections without having to disclose their donors – and the people who fought the American Revolution.

As a 501(c)(6) nonprofit organization, the Chamber can currently spend up to 49% of its resources on political activity, without disclosing its donors. In the current election season, which OpenSecrets calls “the darkest money election to date,” the Chamber alone has spent about a third of the $23 million in total independent expenditures spent on congressional races so far. The IRS is currently engaged in a rulemaking that could clarify the definition of political activity for nonprofits in such a way that the Chamber would be required to drastically reduce this spending or even disclose its donors. The Chamber does not want us to see what’s behind the curtain.

Far from being a shadowy plot to limit speech, the IRS’s current effort to revise the rules could actually increase civic engagement and grassroots lobbying by nonprofits. The current IRS rules are vague and subjective, making it hard to tell when a group has done so much political activity that it’s violated the boundaries of its nonprofit status. Clearer, fairer rules could encourage more democratic participation from small nonprofits that can’t spend valuable resources on high priced lawyers to tell them what the IRS will or won’t consider political activity. A new draft of the rules is expected in early 2015.

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The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decisions in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, a corporate victory of “startling breadth,” and in Harris v. Quinn, are only the latest in a trend at the U.S. Supreme Court over the past six years.

A new report by the Constitutional Accountability Center titled “The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Continues its Winning Ways” shows that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has gotten its way in an astonishing 80 percent of the cases it has argued over the past three terms, including 69 percent this term and 70 percent since President George W. Bush appointed Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the court.

The Chamber’s 80 percent success rate over the past three terms comprises 32 wins and just eight losses. That’s a streak like the one enjoyed by Lebron James’ 2013 Miami Heat, which had one of the best seasons in NBA history last year, winning 80 percent of its games on its way to a second straight championship.

The Chamber’s winning streak since Alito succeeded Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in 2006, with a 70 percent win rate over that time period, is a distinct phenomenon: the Chamber won only 43 percent of the time in the Burger court (15 of 35 from 1981-1986) and 56 percent in the Rehnquist court (45 of 80 from 1994-2005).

This suggests that the Chamber’s recent record owes more to the current composition of the court than the Chamber’s lawyering, so it’s important not to overstate the Chamber’s influence on what the court actually decides.

The report also notes how aggressively the Chamber works to overturn long held precedents considered unfriendly to business interests. While the Chamber and its Institute for Legal Reform rail against “activist attorneys general” and lawyers “seeking a big, fat payday” to demonize judicial arguments that would rein in corporate abuses, they routinely recommend that the Supreme Court overrule longstanding and settled precedent.

“For instance,” the report reads, “the Chamber argued that the Court should second-guess two centuries of executive practice in [National Labor Relations Board v.] Canning, overrule a quarter-century’s worth of precedent in Halliburton [Co. v. Erica P. John Fund, Inc.], limit the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gases in [Utility Air Regulatory Group v. EPA], and toss out important interstate air pollution rules in EPA v. EME Homer.”

We are now seeing the culmination of decades of Chamber work in the courts, dating back to the infamous 1971 memorandum by corporate tobacco attorney Lewis Powell, that said, in part,

“Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations. … The role of the National Chamber of Commerce is therefore vital. … Under our constitutional system, especially with an activist-minded Supreme Court, the judiciary may be the most important instrument for social, economic and political change.”

The same year Powell wrote his memorandum, President Richard Nixon nominated him to the Supreme Court, where he wrote the opinion that the Roberts court used to reach its corrosive Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission decision, which allowed corporations to spend unlimited sums to influence political campaigns. The Chamber’s decades of lobbying, campaign spending and aggression in the courts are paying off at accelerating rates.

Powell wrote his memorandum in response to a period of success for progressive issues in the courts, college campuses and other arenas of influence. His paper concluded,

“The first step should be a thorough study. But this would be an exercise in futility unless the Board of Directors of the Chamber accepts the fundamental premise of this paper, namely, that business and the enterprise system are in deep trouble, and the hour is late.”

It seems clear that the tables have turned. The Chamber’s resounding successes in the Supreme Court over the past six years spell trouble for the equality and sustainability of our country. It is long past time for the left, both institutional and non-institutional, to redouble its efforts. The hour is late.

Sam Jewler is the communications and research officer for Public Citizen’s Chamber Watch program.

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Last week, we hosted an online conversation with Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, and Lisa Gilbert, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.

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