Chamber of Commerce in Wonderland

It’s a good rule of thumb: If the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — the trade association for large corporations — is whipped up about something, there’s probably good reason for the public to strongly back whatever has sent the Chamber into fits.

Well, the Chamber is apoplectic over a modest Obama administration proposed executive order that would require government contractors to reveal all of their campaign-related spending.

This is a case where the rule of thumb works. The proposed executive order would provide important information about campaign spending by large corporations, and work to reduce the likelihood that contracts are provided as payback for campaign expenditures. You can urge the administration to stand up to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce by signing the petition here: <www.citizen.org/disclosure-petition>.

The U.S. Chamber is of course no stranger to using exaggerated rhetoric to advance its positions. But its opposition to the Executive Order is astounding even by the standards of the Chamber.

A driving purpose of the Executive Order is to prevent corruption; the phenomenon of campaign contributors being given preferential access for contracting is so widely acknowledged that it has a slang name: “pay-to-play.” In a spell-binding bit of Alice-in-Wonderland logic, the Chamber is arguing that the Executive Order will actually enable pay-to-play abuses!

An email action alert from the Friends of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce raises the specter of “your tax dollars only going to those companies or contractors that have contributed to a particular political party,” asking, “Sounds like pay-to-play, right?”

It certainly does!

Why does the Chamber make this point? Because it then goes on to argue “that’s exactly what could happen if the White House, as expected, issues a new Executive Order (EO) requiring American employers seeking federal government contracts to disclose their political contributions in excess of $5,000.”

And thus does Alice fall down the rabbit hole.

The best way to prevent pay-to-play abuses is simply to ban campaign spending by government contractors. But short of that, disclosing campaign expenditures — as the Obama executive order would mandate — is the best way possible to limit the potential for abuse. Disclosure of government contactors’ campaign spending will help shine a light on the contracting process and diminish the likelihood of abuse and waste of taxpayer monies.

The Chamber attempts to argue that if the government knows which companies are making political expenditures, the administration in power will reward those it likes and punish those it doesn’t. Here’s the problem with that logic: The government already knows. Company political action committees must disclose their spending. Direct contributions by company executives and employees are already disclosed.

What is not disclosed publicly are the secret contributions that corporations funnel through trade associations and front groups to influence elections. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, more than $130 million in secret money was spent in the 2010 election, and that figure is certain to skyrocket in 2012. These secret donations are expenditures that corporations can use to extract special access and consideration — without even the check of the public knowing about the corporations’ leverage.

What is an example of a trade association that funnels such corporate money, you might ask.

Why, the number one example is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Is it just possible that this helps explain the vociferousness of the Chamber’s objection?

(Hint: yes.)

Now, the U.S. Chamber rolls out some other complaints about the President’s draft executive order. It would only apply to corporations, but not “big labor unions,” grumbles the action alert from Friends of the U.S. Chamber. Actually, the executive order will apply to unions, in cases where they may be government contractors. But more to the point: There was legislation considered last year that would have required disclosure of all union contributions to groups making campaign-related expenditures, the DISCLOSE Act. That legislation was defeated by a single vote in the Senate … thanks to the opposition of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its allies in the Republican Party.

“With America facing a severe budget crisis, your tax dollars should be closely protected,” states the Friends of the U.S. Chamber action alert. “As such, government contracts should be awarded based on qualifications and cost — just as they are in the private sector.”

Exactly right.

Except that the Chamber draws exactly the wrong conclusion. To protect our tax dollars, we need — at a bare minimum — openness and disclosure of contractors’ campaign spending. We can’t afford and should not tolerate secret spending accounts that invite government contracting corruption.

Urge the President to stand up to the Chamber today: www.citizen.org/disclosure-petition.

Robert Weissman is president of Public Citizen.


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ROBERT WEISSMAN is president of Public Citizen.

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