Chambergate, “Disclosers,” and the silly season of campaigns

October 11, 2010   •  By Brad Smith
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It is the silly season of the campaign, the time when desperate partisans resort to desperate measures.  Right now, the silly season is epitomized by the wild accusations of Think Progress, the web arm of the liberal activist group Center for American Progress, which has been launching accusations that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is funding its political activity with illegal foreign funds.  The argument of the “disclosers” goes something like this:  The U.S. Chamber receives a few hundred thousand a year in dues from U.S. Chambers of Commerce located abroad.  These funds are deposited into the U.S. Chamber’s general treasury, and the U.S. Chamber, in accordance with the law, funds its political activities with funds from its general treasury. (See FEC Advisory Opinion 1992-16.) Therefore, somehow the Chamber is using illegal foreign money for its political activities.

Now, no serious person believes that the Chamber is funding its political activity with this small amount of dues from overseas based members.  The Chamber has a budget in excess of $150 million.  The “disclosers” at Think Progress have identified $400,000 in dues from overseas.   All that the law requires, as even Think Progress admits, is that the Chamber have in place a reasonable method of accounting to assure that the foreign funds are not used in the U.S. campaign.  To think that the Chamber’s multi-million dollar campaign is funded with foreign funds is laughable.  But Think Progress and the liberal groups picking up its argument take the position that the Chamber is guilty until proven innocent. Of course, the same could be said of Think Progress – neither Think Progress nor its parent, the Center for American Progress Action Fund have proven that they did not coordinate this attack on the Chamber with the Democratic National Committee or Democratic Candidates, in which case their actions would be illegal, undisclosed campaign contributions.  Perhaps a Senate investigation of the Center for American Progress, or even criminal proceedings, are needed!

The Washington Post and New York Times, not the usual Republican apologists, have address the bogus nature of these charges.  Still, there are the usual crazies who won’t give.  Such conspiracy theories seem to abound these days.  The 9/11 Truthers had help in keeping their conspiracy theories alive through occasional hints from otherwise responsible liberals who would suggest that they were raising “legitimate questions.” The Birthers have kept their conspiracy theories alive with occasional hints from otherwise responsible conservatives that the problem would all go away if President Obama would simply produce a birth certificate (no matter how many times he has produced birth records and no matter how much corroborating evidence there is).  Now, though most responsible persons are keeping their hands off this inept smear, the “October Disclosers” are benefiting from a few people in prominent places who fuel their fantasies.  These people do not go so far as to agree with the October Disclosers, whose charges they must know are silly, but they fuel the Disclosers fundanoia by suggesting that “we really don’t know who is funding the Chamber.”  Presidential Advisor David Axelrod is one such person, saying, “No one knows where the money’s coming from.  Why not simply disclose where this money is from and then all these questions will be answered?” Indeed, even the President has gotten into the act, hinting darkly that “groups that receive foreign money are spending huge sums to influence American elections, and they won’t tell you where the money for their ads come from.”

But of course, we do know that the Chamber isn’t spending foreign money on politics – or at least any sensible person knows it.  We know it in the same way that we know that Barack Obama was born in the U.S., even if we can’t prove it to the complete satisfaction of every birther out there.  The guilty until proven innocent, “prove a negative” approach of the October Disclosers is political fodder, not serious argument about which there is reasonable doubt.  The Chamber’s foreign funds are such a trivial part of its overall budget – a fraction of one percent – that no one seriously believes they are funding the political effort.  For one thing, if the Chamber were going to violate the law by using foreign funds in U.S. campaigns, it is hardly likely that they would so openly reveal the names of American Chambers overseas and the amounts of dues they pay to the Chamber – which is how the slueths at Think Progress got onto the whole nefarious trick.

It’s also all a bit absurd.  For years, of course, U.S. subsidiaries of foreign corporations have operated PACs, as have U.S. companies with substantial overseas earnings.  They can fund the administrative costs of these PACs with general revenues.  Meanwhile, dozens of labor unions with members outside the U.S. have also been operating PACs, and in this cycle, using their newfound freedom under Citizens United v. FEC, directly spending to support candidates.

The idea that new disclosure is now needed because “we don’t really know who is funding ads” has, in fact, been the case ever since foreign money was first prohibited (with arguably a de jure, but probably not de facto, exception for 3 years in the latter 1970s).  It is also the case as to many other provisions of the FECA, most state campaign finance laws, and indeed many other general laws.  For years there has been no way to know if independent spenders were using illegal union money, illegal corporate money, illegal foreign money, or simply underreporting their expenditures.  The logic of Think Progress’s complaint against the Chamber applies to anyone (and everyone) else, too – including, as I’ve noted above, Think Progress and the Center for American Progress.  How do we know that they are not illegally coordinating this activity with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, given the way DCCC Chair Chris Van Hollen has chimed in on the attack?  Without allowing the FEC or another government agency to audit Think Progress’s and the Center for American Politics, we don’t.  It’s fundanoia!

This is not the first time in recent years that concerns over foreign money have blossomed into full blown conspiracy theories.  In 2008, I spent more than a little time and effort telling unhappy Republican audiences that the Obama campaign was not funded by foreign interests, in the pages of the Washington Post and on Fox News, among other places.  This time the conspiracy comes from the Democrats, abetted by no less than the President himself.  But responsible experts in the field should not exacerbate the problem by suggesting that the “Disclosers” raise reasonable questions.

Update, 10/11, 12:42 pm: The AP’s story is out, and joins responsible media in noting that there is “no evidence” to substantiate the charge by Think Progress and the President.

Brad Smith

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