The US Chamber of Big Checks

First there supposedly were 3 million U.S. Chamber of Commerce members.  Then, that number was debunked and the Chamber clarified that it really only has 300,000 members.

Now, we find out there may be a whole lot fewer that count - at least in terms of the companies and individuals who are writing the big checks to pay for climate change and other Chamber lobbying.

This is not some exercise in "gotcha!" math. The very real issue here is as simple as this: Does the Chamber's extremist agenda opposing climate legislation and clean energy jobs reflect its broad (?) membership? Or, does that agenda reflect a handful of deep-pocketed companies that are pulling the strings at the Chamber?

Titled "Tiny Group of Deep-Pocketed Contributors Fueling U.S. Chamber's Advocacy," Greenwire's Anne Mulkern writes today in the New York Times:

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce often says it speaks for 3 million members, businesses both large and small. What it doesn't promote as readily is that 19 supporters last year provided a third of the trade group's total revenue.

Documents filed with the Internal Revenue Service this month show the chamber drew its 2008 funding heavily from a small group of contributors, with each paying more than $1 million. Within that set, some gave very large sums. One company or person provided the chamber with $15.3 million last year, an amount more than 10 percent of the influence group's $147 million revenues. Another gave $8.2 million, and a third $2.9 million. 

The chamber did not release the names of those supporters. A copy of the trade group's tax return obtained by E&E includes a list of contributors that the IRS requires, but with the names of those contributors removed. It is unclear whether each sum came from an active member company or a hands-off benefactor. As well, it is not possible to know whether those giving large sums are most interested in climate and energy policy, health care, taxes, or the other myriad business issues the chamber lobbies on to Congress.

The chamber said contribution levels and lobbying are not connected.

In fact, the US Chamber has repeatedly said in recent months that its climate policy positions are determined through a "democratic process":

The chamber reaches its positions through a "democratic process" that is "driven by members," chamber spokesman Eric Wohlschlegel said yesterday.

"Policy is developed and recommendations are made to the whole board," spokesman Wohlschlegel said yesterday. "It's an open and voluntary process, and it's formulated by a majority of our members that represents the broader business community's perspective and not just the interests of one sector, one energy sector ... or one sector of the economy."

Hmmm...maybe the US Chamber's democratic process is based on one dollar, one vote. After all, just last month, Mulkern wrote a story with E&E's Michael Burnham in which they examined the US Chamber's decision-making process. At the time, they wrote:

An official who is knowledgeable of chamber energy policy, but who spoke with E&E on condition of anonymity, said the chamber board acts as more of an adviser than as the final word on policy.

"On policy, it only sets broad positions and principles," the official noted. "Groups within the chamber, like Bill Kovacs' Environment, Technology and Regulatory Affairs shop, develop detailed policy positions in concert with contributors, which include some board members."

"Companies with the largest contributions tend to hold more sway with chamber staff on setting final policy positions," the official added. (emphasis added)

Gee, that's not too far off from what an identified Chamber official had to say recently. The Chair of the US Chamber's Environment, Technology and Regulatory Affairs Committee (ETRA) - the committee that the Chamber keeps saying is responsible for formulating climate policy, told Mother Jones' Josh Harkinson something very interesting last month:

But Donald Sterhan, chair of the Chamber's energy and environment committee, says that its board of directors and its committees never formally endorsed the climate stance.

"There was no vote taken," he says. He adds that his committee held "really more of an information discussion" than a policy debate on the issue. The final decision to challenge the EPA's regulation of greenhouse gasses, he explains, was "Bill [Kovac's] position on this, and his finding."

Tis insider's view doesn't seem to be too big a secret, according to at least one observer. As Mulkern's article today states:

The chamber's board of directors is very large and does not actively decide the association's position on climate legislation and other policies, said Bruce Herbert, president of Newground Social Investment, a money management firm that has been talking to companies in its fund portfolios and asking them to leave the chamber if their views on climate legislation differ from those of the trade group.

"Where the authority actually lies is in the committees and the executive director," Herbert said. "It does operate in a very narrow way. The money process just highlights that that is the case."

Herbert added, "It seems to indicate that some companies see this as a very effective means toward a specific end they are looking for. It's a pay-to-play kind of an organization. Those who give in large amounts are going to be listened to in a different way." 

Well, maybe it's not just one sector of the economy dictating the Chamber's extremist agenda on climate change.  But something tell us that those 19 donors paying the bulk of the Chamber's bills may be having just a wee bit more to say about things than other companies.

All of this raises the interesting question:  Just who exactly are the "Naughty 19" that are investing so heavily in the Chamber? What do these companies want in exchange for their largesse?