WASHINGTON — The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is pumping up to $75 million into this year's election campaigns, mostly for Republicans, and it's muscular spending is becoming controversial.
Some liberal activists and Democrats allege that some of the money the chamber is spending comes from illegal foreign donations — a charge that the chamber flatly denies, but one that's gaining traction.
Rep. Tom Perriello, D-Va., a self-described chamber target in an uphill battle for re-election, this week called the foreign funds reports "beyond outrageous, to being fundamentally un-American and undemocratic."
In Pennsylvania, Democratic Senate candidate Joe Sestak on Thursday blasted his GOP rival, Pat Toomey, saying, "In violation of U.S. election law, Toomey's foreign corporation allies are now spending millions to launch attack ads aimed at distorting Joe's record."
Even Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine joined the chorus.
"It's time the Chamber of Commerce answered a very basic question: Since when do they believe that large undisclosed corporate interests and companies in China, Russia and the Middle East should help choose America's leaders?" he asked. "Our country was founded on the belief that the American people — and no one else — should have the right to decide our country's future."
Foreign corporations and foreign nationals are barred from giving directly or indirectly to any U.S. campaigns. U.S.-based subsidiaries of foreign corporations are allowed to actively contribute. And do.
The group StoptheChamber.org has called on the Internal Revenue Service to audit the chamber and on the Department of Justice to investigate potential election fraud. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., wants the Federal Election Commission to look into the reports.
At a small protest Thursday afternoon outside the chamber's Washington headquarters, liberal groups carried signs that read, "Foreign Corporations OUT of U.S. Elections," and "Chamber + Foreign $$$=Stolen Elections."
"I am here to protest the influence of foreign corporations in U.S. elections. The public has just learned . . . that the Chamber of Commerce is using foreign corporations' money for campaign ads," said Kristen Hedges, an activist for the liberal group MoveOn.org.
In an interview, Bruce Josten, executive vice president of the chamber, said that allegations of illegal foreign contributions are baseless.
American Chambers of Commerce abroad are formed to represent U.S. companies in a given foreign country. About 115 AmCham affiliates collectively contribute about $100,000 to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's general fund. This $100,000 is spent on international programs, not U.S. political campaigns, Josten said, though critics have noted that money is fungible and accounts easily mixed.
"This is ridiculous. It is nominal dues payments to us because the issues of concern to them here (in the United States) are few and far between," said Josten.
The chamber, Josten said, plans to raise and spend $50 million to $75 million on issue ads. That's more than double the $33.5 million it spent in the 2008 election cycle. The chamber's spent $17 million so far this election cycle, according to reports filed at the Federal Election Commission.
Josten alleged that unions that fund the chamber's critics solicit money abroad for organizing campaigns and elections in the United States.
"Isn't it funny how many of them have 'international' in their name?" Josten said, pointing to Canadian union workers affiliated with U.S. labor groups and to a 2008 resolution adopted by the Service Employees International Union that encourages the pooling of union resources and strategies in the United States and Canada to influence outcomes in both nations.
The chamber carries unusual weight in local elections, since its members tend to be familiar, respected local businesses.
If any official probe is begun into this controversy, it's unlikely to be completed before the Nov. 2 elections. Still, the flap illustrates the enormous clout the chamber can wield — and how worried its opponents are about its reach.
"The chamber is a brand. It probably resonates with voters who think of the Chamber of Commerce as the store down the street," said Chris Plein, professor of public administration at West Virginia University.
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For more McClatchy politics coverage visit Planet Washington
McClatchy Newspapers 2010