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Nonprofit profile: U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Quick stats on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce

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Type of organization: 501(c)(6)

Employer Identification Number: 53-0045720

Supports: Describes itself as "bipartisan" but mostly supports Republican candidates

Website: uschamber.com

Social media: YouTube channel, Facebook page, Twitter profile

Finances:

For the group's activities during calendar year 2010:

    Total revenue: $199 million
    Total expenses: $187 million
    Net assets: -$13.2 million

IRS Form 990 filing: 2010

Principals:

  • Thomas J. Donohue (president and CEO): Donohue has been president and CEO of the Chamber since 1997.
  • R. Bruce Josten (executive vice president, government affairs): Josten has been with the Chamber for nearly 30 years. He has been in charge of government affairs since 1994 and helped grow the Chamber into the top lobbying spender in the country.
  • Edward B. Rust, Jr. (chairman of the board of directors): Rust is the chairman and CEO of State Farm Mutual and a past chairman of the Business Roundtable, the Financial Services Roundtable and the conservative American Enterprise Institute. He sits on the multiple corporate boards.

Profile:

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s 501(c)(6) nonprofit status has the effect of masking the identities of its donors — and thereby the identities of the corporations who fund its lobbying and political advertising initiatives. It claims to have a membership of 3 million, though other estimates peg the number as much lower.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the Chamber has spent more than $900 million on lobbying since 1998 and has been the top lobbying spender annually since 2001. During the 2010 midterm elections, it reported spending nearly $33 million on political ads to the Federal Election Commission, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Its goal for the 2012 election cycle was to spend $50 million on political advertising, President and CEO Tom Donohue said in May.

Donohue has expanded the group’s power and reach immensely since his arrival 15 years ago. Under Donohue, annual fundraising has grown from approximately $50 million to nearly five times that amount, Business Insider and the Wall Street Journal have reported. Lobbying expenditures have also risen from $17 million in 1998 to as high as $157 million in 2010, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Donohue’s goal as CEO, Business Insider reported, was to “build the biggest gorilla in town — the most aggressive and vigorous business advocate our nation has ever seen.” He courted major corporations to underwrite the Chamber’s efforts, offering them in return an anonymous vehicle for pushing their political agendas.

Unlike candidates, traditional political action committees and super PACs, nonprofits are not required to report who is paying for the ads they buy.

A March 2012 court ruling would have required the Chamber to reveal the identities of those who pay for its “electioneering” ads, which name a candidate, but do not endorse or oppose him. The Chamber responded by shifting to “express advocacy” ads, which do urge a yes or no vote and allowed it to continue to keep its donors secret. (The district court ruling was overturned by an appeals court in September.)

The Chamber has become more hardline Republican in recent years, speaking out on controversial issues like climate change and health care reform. It has lobbied in favor of tort reform and raising the debt ceiling.

It has supported the Stop Online Piracy Act and the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Some of the Chamber’s state and local affiliates aren’t happy with the organization’s direction under Donohue, claiming its current agenda focuses on attacking politicians rather than representing the interests of smaller businesses. Donohue doesn’t see the problem.

“Are we more powerful?” he asked the Wall Street Journal in 2001. “Damn right we are.”

Advertisements:

  • "Tell Sherrod Brown to Stop Hiding" criticized the Democratic Ohio senator.
  • "Claire McCaskill Supports Obamacare" attacked the Democratic senator from Missouri for her support of the Affordable Care Act.
  • In May, the Chamber began an online ad campaign that targeted YouTube users in New York state whose computers were located in contested congressional districts. The campaign was the first of its kind.
  • In one of the Chamber's biggest single ad blitzes, it spent $5.9 million on ads in contested Senate races, including the $1.7 million "Deciding," which opposed Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.
  • For more ads, see the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's YouTube channel.

Correction (June 22, 2012, 5:34 p.m.): The Chamber supports the Stop Online Piracy Act, contrary to a previous version of this profile. In addition, while the Chamber has paid for ads opposing "Obamacare," it has not paid for ads in support of Mitt Romney.

Last updated: Jan. 22, 2013