A campaign finance ‘reform’ twofer from Think Progress

October 5, 2010   •  By Sean Parnell
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Think Progress, the left-leaning blog affiliated with the Center for American Progress (a supporter of strict campaign finance regulations) has a post up today that they no doubt believe is a devastating assault on the political spending of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce:

The largest attack campaign against Democrats this fall is being waged by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a trade association organized as a 501(c)(6) that can raise and spend unlimited funds without ever disclosing any of its donors… A Think Progress investigation has found that the Chamber funds its political attack campaign out of its general account, which solicits foreign funding. And while the Chamber will likely assert it has internal controls, foreign money is fungible, permitting the Chamber to run its unprecedented attack campaign. According to legal experts consulted by ThinkProgress, the Chamber is likely skirting longstanding campaign finance law that bans the involvement of foreign corporations in American elections.

– The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has created a large presence in the small, oil-rich country of Bahrain… Many of the USBBC’s board members are Bahrainian, including Aluminum Bahrain, Gulf Air, Midal Cables, the Nass Group, Bahrain Maritime & Mercantile International, the Bahrain Petroleum Company (state-owned), Gulf Petrochemical Industries Company, and First Leasing Bank. With each of these foreign board members to the USBBC contributing at least $10,000 annually, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce raises well over $100,000 a year in money from foreign businesses through its operation in Bahrain

– Like the Chamber’s involvement in Bahrain, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce operates in India through a group called “U.S.-India Business Council” (USIBC)… Dozens of Indian businesses, including some of India’s largest corporations like the State Bank of India (state-run) and ICICI Bank, are members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce through the USIBC. Annual membership dues range from $7,500 to $15,000 or more, and the money is given directly into the Chamber’s 501(c)(6) bank account. Like the USBBC, the USIBC generates well over $200,000 a year in dues for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce from foreign businesses…

While Think Progress raises an interesting question about the source of the Chamber’s funds for political advertising (more on that in a second), it also manages to completely demolish on one major talking point self-styled reformers have been touting since the Citizens United ruling came out while also pointing out how the “reform” community is generally only worried about stopping political spending from the business community while leaving unions unfettered.

For months, we’ve been told that Citizens United “opened the floodgates” to foreign spending in U.S. elections. CCP has pointed out numerous times that this was not the case, that the Supreme Court left intact the federal law as well as Federal Election Commission regulations prohibiting foreign expenditures in U.S. elections.

Today’s post by Think Progress, however, acknowledges what we have been saying all along, that foreign spending in U.S. elections remains prohibited. From the excerpt above:

According to legal experts consulted by ThinkProgress, the Chamber is likely skirting longstanding campaign finance law that bans the involvement of foreign corporations in American elections.

Well, so much for that “reform” talking point.

Beyond that, the report raises a legitimate question: how can funds from foreign entities that flow into organizations such the U.S. Chamber of Commerce can be prevented from being spent in U.S. elections, which Think Progress helpfully now confirms remains illegal?

But if the question can and should be asked of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, what about other entities that receive funds from foreign entities? For example, the Wikipedia entry on the Service Employees International Union states:

Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is a labor union representing about 1.8 million workers in over 100 occupations in the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico.

Likewise, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters also reports members (and therefore, member dues) from Canada, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers has members not just in Canada but also Panama and several Caribbean nations.

And the AFL-CIO includes several member unions that include foreign members, such as the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Allied Workers, the  Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers’ International Union and the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders, Blacksmiths, Forgers and Helpers.

In fact, nearly half of the membership of the AFL-CIO have the term “International” in their names or some other indication of foreign membership (the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry of the United States and Canada), and it is a certainty that other unions also have foreign membership.

So, both the U.S. Chamber and the AFL-CIO have involvement with affiliated foreign entities, but only the Chamber’s foreign members are of concern to the “reformers” at Think Progress and the Center for American Progress. I guess we can file this away as yet another example of why few believed the “reform” spin that the DISCLOSE Act treated corporations and unions equally.

Oh, and about the Chamber’s funds that come from foreign members, they say that they have an internal process in place to ensure foreign funds are not spent on U.S. elections. Think Progress offers no evidence to the contrary, and there’s no indication the Chamber has not followed the law here.

Sean Parnell

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