This story was updated at 3:05 p.m. EST.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce poured money into lobbying at the end of 2009, nearly tripling its expenditures from a year earlier and dwarfing spending by other activist groups.
As it worked to influence climate and energy legislation and many other issues, the trade association spent $71.1 million in the last three months of the year, compared with $24 million in the fourth quarter of 2008, lobbying-disclosure records show. The total includes what the chamber spent on its lobbyists as well as on advertising campaigns and grass-roots efforts.
"It was an incredibly ambitious year for the Congress and the administration," chamber spokeswoman Tita Freeman said. "The chamber was involved in every pressing issue that impacts the economy and the business community, so it shouldn't come as a surprise."
"The chamber is an advocacy organization," Freeman added. "Our purpose is to actively communicate the positions of the business community ... generally that is why we exist."
A trade group that says it represents America's businesses, the chamber ranked climate and energy legislation among its top-tier concerns along with health care, financial regulatory reform, small business initiatives and rules for union organizing known as "card check." The chamber lobbied on several other issues and talked to lawmakers about spending bills for nearly every government department.
The report shows both the depth and breadth of the group's involvement on policies affecting energy, the environment, transportation and chemicals. Within each, the chamber sometimes weighed in on dozens of bills or potential changes. On transportation and infrastructure, the trade group lobbied on 23 separate bills and many issues where no specific bill had been introduced.
The spending spike came at the end of a year that saw the chamber in the limelight. Utilities Exelon Corp., PNM Resources Inc. and Pacific Gas & Electric Corp. last fall decided to leave the group over its position on climate legislation. Apple Inc. left as well. Nike Inc. resigned from the chamber's board of directors but stayed on as a member. Some of those departing companies said it became clear to them that there were a few chamber members that did not want climate legislation and that those members' voices drowned out those of climate legislation supporters.
The chamber opposed the House-passed climate bill and has not endorsed the Senate bill from Democratic Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and Barbara Boxer of California. It argues that it would be inappropriate for U.S. EPA to regulate heat-trapping emissions under the Clean Air Act. But the chamber has said that it supports "strong federal legislation and a binding international agreement to reduce carbon emissions and address climate change."
Chamber critics charge that the trade group has wielded its wallet to stop climate legislation.
"What [the lobbying report] proves is that when your agenda is 'no,' it's an expensive agenda," David Di Martino, spokesman for the Clean Energy Works campaign, a coalition of about 60 environmental groups, labor unions, religious organizations and veterans groups. "It costs a lot of money to block everything."
What the chamber has been most effective at, Di Martino said, is confusing Americans about what is in various climate bills.
Di Martino rejected statements by the chamber that it supports climate legislation.
"They've been duplicitous in their position and duplicitous in their statements," Di Martino said. "They've spent every last dollar they can to keep America reliant on old technologies that the Chamber of Commerce represents."
The chamber continues to call for "comprehensive climate legislation," said R. Bruce Josten, chamber executive vice president of government affairs.
Josten and the chamber president, Tom Donohue, met last week with Kerry and Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who are working on a climate legislation compromise. The group "revisited" the chamber's positions on climate legislation and the points made in an October opinion piece by Kerry and Graham on climate legislation, Josten said.
"We said we're generally in sync," Josten said. At this point, he said, there are few details beyond what was in the op-ed.
But Josten at the same time described as successful the chamber's lobbying efforts last year on climate.
"A year ago, the business community's principal concern was that climate legislation, health care legislation and card check would be stampeded across the finish line," Josten said. "In terms of several top-line issues to the business community that did not become enacted into law, that's not bad."
The chamber reports its lobbying expenses under a method that uses the Internal Revenue Service's definition of lobbying, which includes state lobbying, grass-roots campaigns and advertising.
Congress allows companies and groups that lobby to report their lobbying expenses using one of three formats. Other companies and groups file using lobbying definitions under the Lobbying Disclosure Act. That method does not include advertising. The $71 million total in the chamber's report includes advertising that the chamber funded, Josten said.
"Probably the majority of the increase that you're seeing year over year is advertising," Josten said.
In the last three months of the year, the chamber paid for ads on health care and financial regulatory reform, Freeman said.
Other groups and companies that filed under that same IRS definitions, however, reported far smaller totals than the chamber in the fourth quarter. The American Medical Association spent $8 million on lobbying in that period. General Electric Co. spent $6.8 million. Exxon Mobil Corp. reported $6.7 million in advocacy expenses. Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the trade group for drug makers, spent $6.3 million. Those businesses and trade groups in recent years have been among the biggest spenders on lobbying along with the chamber, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the bigger environmental organizations, spent $101,116 in the last three months of 2009. It reports expenditures using the IRS lobbying definition for a nonprofit group.
Trade groups typically take in more money from members when there are political issues that make those members feel threatened, said Lee Lane, a fellow with the American Enterprise Institute think tank. Businesses that belong to the chamber may be giving it money for lobbying, he said, because they perceive the agenda of the Obama administration and the Democratic-controlled Congress as potentially damaging to their profits.
"It would astonish me if their spending didn't go up," Lane said. "The fundraising goes up because so many businesses feel frightened."
Similarly, Lane said, environmental groups do well when there is a threat to the policies they hold dear.
The chamber raises funds around issues, spokeswoman Freeman said, in addition to its membership dues that are based on company size and revenues. Businesses can contribute and designate how they want their money spent.
"They would say, 'We want you to advocate for climate legislation that is compatible with economic growth,'" Freeman said, "or 'We want you to make sure card check does not get passed.'"
Health care and financial regulatory reform also were under consideration by Congress, Freeman said, adding, "all those issues are going to garner tremendous interest from our members and, hence, activity from the chamber."
Di Martino with Clean Energy Works questioned how many businesses the chamber actually lobbies for on climate and other issues.
"What we've learned about the chamber is that the [number of] members that fund the chamber's activities is a very small segment of the business community," Di Martino said.
E&E reported in November that in 2008, the chamber's revenue base came heavily from a few big contributors, with 19 supporters providing a third of the trade group's total revenue (Greenwire, Nov. 23, 2009). One company or person provided the chamber with $15.3 million, an amount of more than 10 percent of the influence group's $147 million revenues that year. Another gave $8.2 million, and a third $2.9 million.
The chamber can be forceful as a lobbying group, Lane said.
"There are a lot of effective organizations out there," Lane said. "Nobody has anything like a dominant voice. There are lots and lots of competitors."
The chamber lobbied on many energy and environment-related bills, including:
- H.R. 2996, the fiscal year 2010 spending bill for the Interior Department.
- The House and Senate climate bills.
- Energy legislation from Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), S. 1462, that would expand offshore drilling.
- H.R. 3246, a vehicle technology bill.
- H.R. 3585, which would guide a DOE solar energy research program and authorize more than $2 billion for solar research and development projects.
Although the House climate bill passed in June, it is still listed as a factor in the last three months of the year because the Kerry-Boxer bill was based on it, Josten said.
Chamber lobbyists talked with lawmakers and U.S. EPA about a number of EPA issues, including the agency's finding that greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare, which was announced Dec. 8 and became final in January. Chamber lobbyists talked to lawmakers about EPA's plan to regulate carbon emissions from major sources, which is expected to affect utilities and refineries. And they challenged EPA's decision to allow California's regulation of carbon emissions from cars and trucks.
Transportation issues included lobbying for a steady funding source for road projects, Josten said. The bulk of federal funding for those projects comes from federal fuel taxes on gasoline and diesel, both of which have remained stagnant since the early 1990s.
"We've suggested they immediately raise the fuel tax 5 cents a gallon," Josten said, a position he said the chamber has advocated for about five years.
The chamber also lobbied on issues related to a policy on storing nuclear waste, endangered species regulations, and S. 787, which would amend the Clean Water Restoration Act. It weighed in on S. 373, which would declare Burmese pythons and eight other invasive snakes "injurious."
Josten, who has been with the chamber 35 years, said it was one of the busiest periods he has seen, because the administration wanted to "do everything in the free world all at once." The same thing happened with the Republicans in 1995, he said, after the party regained control of the House.