WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is a political powerhouse that tops spending on lobbying in Washington year after year. In the past two elections, the pro-business group doled out $69.5 million to send candidates to Congress.
The checks, however, have not always translated into legislative success.
Over the past 4 1/2 years, the Chamber of Commerce has lost most of its important legislative battles. Health care and Wall Street reform laws were enacted and face little threat of repeal. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau finally has an appointed director and Democratic members of the National Labor Relations Board were approved by the Senate.
More significantly, the chamber's big spending in 2010 to elect a House GOP majority appears to have backfired. Many of the conservative lawmakers the chamber helped elect are now an impediment to the business lobby's legislative priorities, either by contributing to Congress' dysfunction or by actively opposing chamber-backed measures.
The chamber has urged Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform, arguing an improved immigration system is "essential to continued economic growth." The group launched a seven-figure, pro-immigration reform ad campaign and embraced the comprehensive immigration bill that passed the Senate in June. Standing in Senate bill's way, however, is the conservative wing of the House Republican conference, which opposes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Although chamber-backed candidates are not the most outspoken critics of immigration reform, as ThinkProgress reported last month, 19 House members who received contributions from the chamber's political action committee in 2010 and 2012 have stated their opposition to the Senate immigration bill.
In the Senate, where 14 Republicans voted in favor of the legislation, only four were backed by chamber money. Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) received more than $1 million each from the chamber in their 2010 campaigns. All three voted against the immigration bill. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) benefited from almost $750,000 in chamber spending. He also voted against the legislation.
A spokesperson for the chamber did not return a request for comment.
The chamber's losing legislative dynamic is not unique to immigration. Chamber-backed House Republicans have refused to support basic transportation appropriations bills that fall short of the level of infrastructure spending the chamber wants. Just before Congress stopped work for the August recess, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was forced to pull a transportation and housing bill from the floor because its cuts were too deep for almost all Democrats and many moderate Republicans. The bill would have set spending on roads, bridges, housing, community development block grants and other efforts at $44.1 billion -- $4.1 billion below this year's spending under harsh sequestration budget cuts.
While the chamber has not specified the spending it wants for the 2014 fiscal year, the group has in the past joined with the AFL-CIO labor organization to endorse President Barack Obama's call for additional infrastructure spending. Last year, chamber leaders expressed frustration when House Republicans moved on short-term extensions for transportation funding after the Senate had successfully advanced a two-year, bipartisan transportation bill.
This year, the Senate transportation and housing bill amounted to $54 billion, about $10 billion higher than the House bill, but was filibustered by Republicans on Aug. 1. Maine Sen. Susan Collins was the only Republican to vote with Democrats to end debate and bring the bill to a vote, while all 10 GOP senators backed by chamber election spending voted against ending the debate.
In upcoming budget battles this fall, conservative lawmakers in the House and in the Senate have threatened to shut down the government if funding isn't stripped from Obamacare, while House Republican leaders are preparing to seek major spending cuts and other reforms in exchange for raising the debt ceiling. But chamber President Tom Donohue has said shutting down the government would be a "pain in the neck," and has argued against any further GOP debt limit hostage-taking, saying it "could really hurt the economy."
Many of the lawmakers his group helped elect are the ones unwilling to pass a continuing spending resolution or a debt ceiling hike without demanding something in return, even if it means risking economic calamity.
Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who received $1,000 from the chamber's PAC for his House campaign and is currently challenging Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) for Senate, has signaled support for a conservative threat to shut down the government if Obamacare isn't defunded.
Rep. Steve Pearce (R-N.M.), aided by $436,953 from the chamber for his 2010 election, voted against multiple debt limit increases, including the August 2011 compromise bill. "Any action to raise our debt ceiling must be accompanied by dramatic changes in the way we spend, the way we operate, even the way we think," he has said. Pearce also reportedly signed a letter to Boehner calling on GOP leaders to pass a continuing resolution that would defund Obamacare.
Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) benefited from $500,000 in chamber independent expenditures against his opponent, in addition to a $1,000 contribution from the chamber’s PAC. While campaigning in 2012, he pledged to "vote against any future increase in the debt ceiling that is not accompanied by significant, credible spending reforms."
Only three of the 10 Senate Republicans elected with chamber spending voted for the 2011 debt ceiling deal. Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) voted against it after being aided by $2.3 million in chamber support in her 2010 campaign, the most for any lawmaker.
The chamber's rapid increase in political spending, with an intent to remove the Democratic congressional majorities Obama enjoyed in his first two years in office, was bolstered by the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United ruling, which allows unlimited political spending. That spending, coordinated with groups founded by GOP strategist Karl Rove, the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers and anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist, helped to power the tea party takeover of the House in 2010, but failed to bring Republicans control of the Senate in 2012.
The chamber has spent money to help elect 22 House Republicans, 10 Senate Republicans and two House Democrats in the past two election cycles who are currently serving in the 113th Congress. (The chamber also helped elect another eight House Republicans and two House Democrats in 2010, who either lost or retired in 2012.)
Chamber-backed lawmakers have not always deviated from the business lobby's policy prescriptions.
The chamber-endorsed America Invents Act, a pro-industry patent reform bill, passed Congress in 2011 with bipartisan support and near universal backing from chamber-supported lawmakers. Only seven lawmakers backed by the chamber's election spending voted against the bill.
The majority of House Republicans supported by the chamber voted for the 2011 debt limit deal, albeit putting in place the $1.2 trillion budget cuts known as sequestration, which the chamber dubbed "bad policy." A short-term debt ceiling extension was also passed in January.
Some chamber-backed lawmakers, including Rep. Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.), have warned against standing in the way of future debt limit increases. Hanna received $25,712 in chamber support in 2010 and once said refusing to raise the debt ceiling was "a little misguided because we’re not paid to go there and stall government or not pay our bills."
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), deputy majority whip in the House, received $10,000 from the chamber's PAC and has often emerged as a voice of reason on key fiscal debates. He was among the first to break with his party on Obama's plan to avert the so-called fiscal cliff and recently chastised the Republicans who suggested a government shutdown over Obamacare.
By helping elect a House Republican majority in 2010, the chamber could take some credit for shifting the conversation to debt and deficit-reduction through entitlement reform, which the lobby supports.
In past negotiations over a possible "grand bargain" with Boehner, Obama has put major entitlement reforms, such as chained CPI, a Social Security benefit cut unpopular among Democrats, on the table. Obama included chained CPI in his 2014 budget proposal, despite significant resistance from members of his own party.
And although Boehner has vowed not to engage in private negotiations with Obama, the White House has recently held budget talks with a group of Senate Republicans and reiterated its willingness to offer concessions on entitlements in exchange for new tax revenues.
Nonetheless, the question remains whether chamber-supported candidates have yielded an ample return on investment. Despite a few successes, the chamber has enjoyed few major legislative victories from its lobbying and campaign muscle in the Obama era. If anything, the lobbying group has incurred major setbacks in its mission to boost business by electing lawmakers who have been counterproductive to that cause.
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