An Autopsy on the Funding of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce

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There’s an old saying that “he who pays the band gets to call the tune.”

Under that heading, it’s worth taking a look at the U.S. Chamber of  Commerce, and related entities. 

Who funds the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill? 

Is it small town Chambers whose members are car dealers and hardware store owners, or is massive corporate interests that depend on big government programs, big government tax giveaways, and big government protectionism?

Public Citizen drilled on the Chamber’s tax returns, and what they found is illuminated in a publication entitled, The Gilded Chamber 2.0; Bigger, Richer, and (Still) Undisclosed:

  • The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is funded by a handful of entities, with almost 60 percent of contributions coming from just 74 large donors, and a whopping 96% of coming from approximately 1,500 entities.
     
  • The vast majority of the Chamber’s claimed direct membership of 300,000 may in fact pay nothing in membership dues.
     
  • In 2014, the Chamber reported 1,536 donations of $5,000 or greater totaling $188.92 million. These itemized contributions accounted for more than 96 percent of the Chamber’s total contributions of $196.79 million.
     
  • The top 74 donors giving contributions of $500,000 and up (5% of itemized donors), provided 59 percent of total itemized contributions and 57% of all contributions.
     
  • The bottom 1,462 itemized donors (95%) provided just 41 percent of total itemized contributions.
     
  • The top 44 donors to the Chamber—each of which contributed $1 million or more—gave almost $100 million dollars. These donors accounted for 47% of all contributions to the Chamber.
     
  • Looking at the extreme upper echelon, the top 18 donors (entities giving $2 million or more) gave a total of $60.7 million. That means the top 18 contributors provided 31% of the Chamber’s total donations and gave approximately two-and-a-half times more than the bottom.
     
  • At the very top, the three largest donors, giving at least $5 million each, contributed a total of $18.3 million. The largest contribution was $7.5 million. This one donation of $7.5 million was larger than the total for the bottom 649 itemized donors.
  • The U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform’s (ILR) is the arm of the Chamber dedicated to restricting consumer access to the courts and lobbying against more aggressive prosecution of corporate crime. Its funding is even more dependent on a small number of large donors than is the Chamber’s. The ILR reported raising $44.8 million from only 99 donors. This represented 99% of its total contributions for 2014. Its average donation of $452,500 was almost four times greater than the average donation to the Chamber.
     
  • Seventy four (75%) contributors to the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform gave over $100,000 while 35 (35%) of contributors gave $500,000 or more, totaling close to $36 million or 80% of contributions.
     
  • The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation reported the lowest number of itemized donations. With only 10 disclosed donations, the CCF raised approximately $14 million. The average donation was approximately $1.4 million and the median donation was nearly $1 million.
     
  • The 119 largest donations may include donations from the same corporation or entity to multiple Chamber-affiliated groups. For example, the 35 donors that gave at least $500,000 to the ILR and the 10 that gave at least $500,000 to the CCF may be among the 74 donors that gave at least $500,000 to the Chamber. If this were the case, it would mean that just 74 donors contributed $160 million or 59% of all funding to the Chamber and its affiliated organizations.
     
  • The Chamber, like almost all trade associations, has membership dues. For small businesses, membership dues are $250 per year. For associations, the minimum dues are $500 per year. For local Chambers of Commerce, minimum dues are $300 per year. The Chamber also has a program called “Small Business Nation” that offers a free “membership” that appears to consist of little more than receiving a weekly email newsletter and is apparently available to anyone willing to fill out a brief form online. If we conservatively assume that all of the non-itemized members are paying the $250 minimum memberships dues (a highly unlikely scenario, as there are almost certainly plenty of $4,000, $3,000 and $2,000 donations and everything in between), then the maximum number of paying members that the Chamber could possibly have in addition to the 1,536 itemized donors would be 31,488 ($7,872,065 divided by $250). Such a scenario would leave 266,976 “members” (almost 90% of its claimed membership) who are not paying a dime and may have done nothing but sign up for email updates from the Chamber.