Politics

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and shady election money

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This story was originally reported by PRI's Here and Now. For more, listen to the audio above.

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Over the past few weeks, a political spotlight has been on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It began when President Obama made a comment that the organization was being funded by foreign money to produce attack advertisements that benefited Republicans. It turned out, however, that the claim was only half true and lacked evidence. Prominent radio show host Glenn Beck then defended the Chamber, saying that it was almost entirely made up of businesses that employed under 100 people. This, however, turned out to be completely false.

So what, exactly, is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce? And how is it different from the Chamber of Commerce that many people are familiar with in their own small towns?

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is a political advocacy and lobbying organization for the American business community, Michael Crowley, senior correspondent and deputy bureau chief for Time Magazine, explained to PRI's Here and Now. The Chambers of Commerce that most people know in small towns are typically apolitical and are best known for sponsoring parades.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has a much larger budget than any local Chambers of Commerce. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce typically spends tens of millions of dollars of lobbying on Capitol Hill. In this election season alone, the Chamber has spent $75 million in political advertisements, often attacking Democratic candidates.

One controversy surrounding the organization is that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce doesn't have to disclosure the identities its donors. This has led to criticism that the majority of its $75 million political budget comes from a relatively small number of wealthy corporations. For example, tax records have indicated that a third of the budget for the Chamber in 2008 came from 19 companies. The lack of disclosure -- and the wealth of the donors -- led the Obama Administration to claim that the Chamber is receiving foreign money.

The money raised by the Chamber of Commerce is contributing to a political environment that is already over-saturated with anonymous donors. Technically, nonprofit organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are legally barred from having more than 50 percent of their operations dedicated to political activities. Crowley believes that many of the nonprofits involved in this election season aren't sticking to the rules.

"We're in a kind of Wild West right now," Crowley says. "There are these strange loopholes in the tax code because campaign finance is very lax right now. Groups that are ostensibly not created to influence elections are spending huge amounts of money -- tens of millions of dollars -- in a very political way without having to disclose their donors."

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