The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is the most powerful lobbying force fighting financial reform in Congress. Last month, the Chamber announced that it is “fundamentally” against reform efforts. Accordingly, the Chamber has hired top insider lobbyists to pressure Senators to water down the bill while running millions of dollars worth of television and online ads smearing Wall Street reform as a “government takeover.”
Historically, the Chamber’s role is to help big business achieve its goals — fighting the minimum wage, opposing health reform, pushing for outsourcing — while hiding the corporate identities of its funders. As ThinkProgress originally reported, many backers of the Chamber with a stake in financial reform are banks that were bailed out by taxpayer TARP funds. For instance, CitiGroup is a Chamber member that was bailed out by taxpayers and still has not repaid the money.
ThinkProgress recently caught up with Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R-MN) to ask him about firms who are using bailout money to lobby against financial reform. Pawlenty became defensive when asked about this, eventually arguing that the Chamber has a right to use taxpayer money in lobbying because “it’s important that groups in a free society with free speech rights to express themselves in the public policy arena”:
TP: Excuse me, Gov. Pawlenty, you’ve criticized ACORN for using taxpayer money for political purposes. The Chamber of Commerce here is funded by dues-paying members including CitiGroup and many other banks that were bailed out by taxpayers using TARP. Do you think that’s appropriate that the Chamber of Commerce is now using those taxpayer dollars to lobby against reform?
PAWLENTY: Who are you with? … Well I think it’s important that groups in a free society with free speech rights to express themselves in a public policy arena whether its the Chamber, or the unions, or your blog. I welcome and applaud people who want to join the debate.
TP: Right but we don’t accept taxpayer money for what we do, but the Chamber uses taxpayer money to lobby against reform. Is that appropriate? [...]
PAWLENTY: I think the Chamber of Commerce is an important business voice. We need people who will advocate for private sector job growth in our country, they’re one of the leading voices in the country to do that. I think they do a good job and I think they’re an important group.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), who cosponsored a draconian bill to cut off funds to ACORN, similarly shrugged off ThinkProgress’ question about the Chamber’s use of taxpayer funds to lobby against reform. Chambliss instead took the opportunity to lavish praise on the Chamber before disregarding its membership of bailed out banks. “I don’t think [the Chamber is lobbying] with our money,” he said.
Tom Donohue, the President of the Chamber, first told ThinkProgress that all the bank members of the Chamber have “paid back all their [bailout] money.” However, when presented with the fact the CitiGroup still has not repaid the TARP funds, Donohue became dismissive and absurdly argued that the Chamber is not lobbying against the larger framework of financial reform. Before quickly darting to another reporter in the room, Donohue said the Chamber had proposed financial reform even before the financial crisis.
In reality, the Chamber was the top lobbying front that fought to weaken bank regulations that led to the crisis in the first place. In a 2005 speech outlining the Chamber’s latest financial deregulation campaign, Donohue declared that “the Chamber is engaged in a comprehensive campaign to protect the capital markets from overzealous regulators” and rating agencies.