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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Political leanings: Pro-business/Conservative

Spending target: $50 million to $75 million

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce reported spending $32.9 million (mostly attacking Democrats or supporting Republicans) in the 2010 campaign cycle. That was second only to the total spent by the American Crossroads/Crossroads GPS twins, counting only money disclosed to the Federal Election Commission. And since not all election-related spending is required to be disclosed to the FEC, the chamber’s true total was likely higher. News reports described it as aiming to spend $50 million to $75 million.  And in 2009, the U.S. Chamber received $86.2 million from a the health-insurance lobby and used it to pay for advertisements, polling and grass roots events to drum up opposition to the new health care law. The source of the funds was not revealed until late 2010, long after the law had been signed.

The chamber is a 501(c)(6) — an IRS designation for nonprofit trade groups. It can accept unlimited contributions and does not have to disclose its donors, although it did disclose spending $23.1 million on political activity in 2008 and, as we mentioned, nearly $33 million in 2010.

Although the chamber occasionally supports some Democrats whom it judges to be pro-business, the bulk of the organization’s efforts skew sharply toward electing Republicans. Of the direct political donations given by the chamber’s political action committee in 2010, for example, 88 percent went to Republicans. It spent nearly $5 million in 2010 running ads targeting Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat. (She won anyway.)

Democrats counterattacked in 2010 by publicizing an unproven allegation that the chamber was illegally using money from foreign corporations to fund its election spending. We found the claim to be “evidence-free,” and the chamber denied it. Nevertheless, Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota announced before the election that he was asking the Federal Election Commission to investigate. The FEC — which by law cannot even confirm that an investigation is under way until it is resolved (or it lands in court) — had released no findings on the matter as of mid-2011.