Friday, June 10, 2016 | 2 a.m.
The 2016 elections have revealed that Americans are tired of politics as usual. Overwhelming majorities of voters from both parties believe that money has too much influence in our political system and that elections spending by outside groups should be both limited and fully transparent. It is therefore not surprising that anti-establishment candidates such as Sen. Bernie Sanders and businessman Donald Trump, who during the primaries have shunned support from super PACs and other deep-pocketed outside groups, have experienced so much success on the campaign trail.
But for all the focus on the presidential race, the problem of unlimited, undisclosed “dark” money in politics is perhaps most acute when it comes to congressional races. The Republican primary election for U.S. Senate in Nevada is a case in point. That has attracted more than $3 million in outside spending; that’s more than in all but eight of the 33 other Senate races.
So who is spending all this dark money in Nevada? The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is the biggest culprit, responsible for more than a third of the outside spending in the race. Let’s be clear, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is nothing like your hometown chamber of commerce. It receives the lion’s share of its money from a small number of very large corporations. It has spent more than $1.2 billion since 1998 lobbying for these large corporations and more than $130 million since 2008 on elections apparently trying to elect congresspeople who will do the bidding of big business. This makes it by far the largest lobbyist in the country and one of the largest outside election spending groups. Indeed, for the 2016 election cycle, it is the largest outside spender on congressional races, having spent almost $11 million. What’s more, the money the chamber spends on elections is 100 percent secret; you’ll see its ad for Joe Heck all over TV and the internet, but you won’t know which corporate interests are actually paying for it. How does that make you feel? Like an uninvited guest in your own democracy?
We’ll never know who’s really paying for all these ads in Nevada, but there is convincing evidence even most businesspeople don’t support the chamber’s ad binge.
While the chamber claims to represent the views of American businesses of all sizes and industries, a recent poll of business leaders by GOP pollster Frank Luntz for the Association of State Chambers of Commerce reveals that a majority of business leaders actually support many progressive policies derided by the U.S. chamber in its ads for Heck as “Washington red tape.” For example, most business leaders favored moving to renewable energy, while only a small minority cited reducing the power and scope of government agencies as their most pressing environmental concern. Business leaders also favored raising the minimum wage, paid sick leave and predictive scheduling for employees. And contrary to what the chamber would have you believe, replacing the Affordable Care Act was not as high on business leaders’ list of priorities as was simply keeping health care costs low for families. So if business leaders themselves hold nuanced views about policy and indeed support many progressive laws and regulations, then does the chamber run ads attacking “Washington red tape” like the one for Joe Heck in Nevada?
Rather than representing all American businesses, as it claims, it would appear that the chamber actually represents the narrow interests of a few industries. Its unwavering opposition to the ACA does not reflect a business consensus to this effect but rather reflects the priorities of the health insurance industry, which reportedly has given the chamber more than $86 million to oppose the ACA. Similarly, its opposition to an increase in the minimum wage may reflect the opposition of the fast-food and retail industries, both of which employ millions of low-wage workers. And of course the chamber’s opposition to legislative and regulatory efforts to fight climate change may be explained by the influence of the fossil fuel industry.
Lost in the chamber’s flood of partisan political spending on behalf of its big-business allies are the more nuanced views of the majority of business executives. Likewise, the chamber also ignores the priorities of small business, green energy, sustainable business and a whole host of other sectors. But most important, the chamber ignores the priorities of individual voters like you. It doubly disrespects Nevadans — by concealing who’s really trying to buy your election, and by trying to buy your election in the first place. No matter your ideological persuasion, the time has come for voters to say no to the role of big money in politics.
If the chamber can’t even faithfully represent the interests of business executives, how can it and other groups like it even pretend to represent your interests? The chamber may present Heck as “a leader Nevada can count on,” but don’t be fooled; its million-dollar investment in Heck implies he’ll be someone big-moneyed special interests in Washington can count on to do their bidding.
Dan Dudis is director of the U.S. chamber watch program at the nonprofit advocacy organization Public Citizen.