Challenging the Chamber

Unlike competing sports teams, adversaries on the corporate and consumer or environment sides rarely square off in public to provide much needed drama and media. They each testify, litigate, petition and conduct press conferences on their own track. Only very rarely do they debate each other.

It is not that the drama is absent. Take the now legendary struggles between the boss — Tom Donohue — of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — the most avariciously powerful business lobby in Washington, D.C. and Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen.

Claybrook was Donohue’s nemesis when he was the head of the American Trucking Association and was pushing for all the states to allow “longer combination vehicles,” — namely, double and triple trailers on the highways. At that time — in 1991 — about 12 western states allowed these behemoths, notwithstanding inadequate braking systems for their weight and speed on their highways.

Through Claybrook’s leadership and a group she started called Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways (CRASH), a bill was enacted in Congress freezing any additional states from doing the trucking industry’s bidding. Donohue could not believe he and his lobbying battalions lost.

Another battle Donohue lost after he took the helm at the Chamber of Commerce was his drive to open the borders and the entire United States to Mexican trucks following the enactment of NAFTA, so that the U.S. truckers could travel throughout Mexico. One big problem: Safety!

By fiat of the two nation’s governments, Mexican and U.S. truck and operator safety standards were deemed “equivalent,” but they were not. Mexican trucks up to 180,000 lbs. were allowed on their roads. In the U.S., the maximum weight, on interstate highways, was 80,000 lbs. Truck driver safety regulations were decidedly weaker in Mexico than in the United States. Truck drivers, in Mexico, could get their license at 18 years of age, did not have to have a special license for the particular rig or the cargo it carried. In the United States truck drivers have to be 21 and obtain a special license for large trucks and know how to handle its cargo.

Six years ago, Claybrook pushed through the Congress standards among which required U.S. trucking inspectors to inspect trucking facilities in Mexico for maintenance and other safety purposes. Mexico refused to allow our inspectors in their country. The result has been that no Mexican trucks or U.S. trucks are coursing each other’s highways. The old rule is still in place. Mexican trucks can unload their cargo no further than 20 miles inside the U.S. border.

Now come Claybrook and Public Citizen’s latest charge. They filed a complaint with the IRS asserting that since 2000, the Chamber and its Institute for Legal Reform spent tens of millions of dollars “in a stealth campaign to influence federal and state political and judicial elections without declaring this spending on tax returns as required by law.”

The Chamber’s massive involvement in elections at the state and federal level goes after state supreme court justices, and other state and Congressional candidates, who are not seen as sufficiently subservient to business interests. Money, attack TV ads and other methods have been funded by the likes of Wal-Mart, Home Depot, AIG Insurance Company, Daimler Chrysler and other giant companies.

Public Citizen’s complaint (see citzen.org) declares that the “Chamber’s role in elections is mainly hidden because it plays a shell game with state-level front groups to conceal the source of this political money from the public and fails to disclose its grants to local groups on tax forms.”

The Chamber’s Institute for Legal Reform (ILR) works to block wrongfully injured or defrauded Americans’ right to their full day in court. One way it approaches its goals is to contribute and support candidates for the state and federal courts that are “business-friendly.”

Public Citizen’s complaint to the IRS charges that:

“The Chamber and ILR are two separate legal entities but shared a bank account as recently as Jan. 12, 2005. The ILR reported $38.3 million in revenue in 2004. The ILR also reported that it had no investment or interest income. It is unlikely that an organization with $38.3 million in revenue would not have any investment or interest income. The Chamber reported an income of $90.9 million in 2004, with minimal investment income.

The Chamber’s accounting practices could have tax implications.

Electioneering expenditures of Section 501(c) groups, including the Chamber and ILR, are subject to taxes, at the highest corporate rate, on the lesser of: (1) their net investment income for the taxable year; or (2) their aggregate expenditures for non-exempt (i.e., political) functions.”

Tom Donohue scoffed at Claybrook’s complaint. But Public Citizen does not make charges unless they are meticulously documented. The Treasury Department is not likely to share Donohue’s casualness.

And so goes the battles over the role of this big business lobby situated in an imposing gray building just opposite the White House across from Lafayette Square. More reporters should be visiting the doings of the Chamber instead of simply assuming they are just pushing business interests. The stories are about how, when, where and toward what damaging results this massive combination of corporate greed and power produces.

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