Chamber of Commerce: The White House Wants Our Donor Lists So Its Allies Can Intimidate Our Donors

Tuesday afternoon, I spoke with Bruce Josten, executive vice president for government affairs at the US Chamber of Commerce, about the White House pressing the Chamber to release its donors list, after President Obama seized on a ThinkProgress report suggesting that since some Chamber money comes from foreign multi-nationals and foreign-based Chamber affiliates, foreign money may be being spent on the Chamber’s political ads.

TAPPER: What's your reaction to this controversy?

JOSTEN: My reaction is to stay focused on what I'm paid to do, which is represent the interests of the business community in this town before the Congress and the administration and the branches and agencies of the federal government and that is exactly what we intend to do.

TAPPER: They're suggesting, based on a ThinkProgress report, that since you do get some money from foreign companies and from AmChams, which are based in other countries, essentially foreign money is finding its way onto the American air waves to fund political attacks on politicians you are trying to defeat.

JOSTEN: Well it's a sad day and a last gasp I guess by this administration and their outside allies, and I wouldn't call the ThinkProgress blog a report Jake, I would recognize it's a liberal blog, subset of the Center for American Progress, which is run by the president's transition campaign director John Podesta, that made a lot of inferences and clearly Al Fang who is the author of that blog doesn't even understand what an American Chamber of Commerce abroad is.

It's a Chamber of Commerce, just like in the United States, members of which abroad are comprised of the American countries in that foreign country conducting business which provides them an association opportunity to compare notes on problems and challenges they may be having with respect to that trade relationship, where they can dialogue and advocate and, and represent their interests before whatever host foreign government that is.

We have 115 of them as Chamber of Commerce of the United States members in 108 countries, paying de minimis dues out of a $200 million budget of around $100,000. We have had and welcome foreign multinationals that have a huge presence in the United States, in fact, no news here, some have been members of ours for over a century, many for decades. Their footprint in the United States is substantial, they comply with all the same laws and regulations as, uh, American companies. We strongly favor foreign direct investment in the United States. So we're not troubled by that.

It seems to me we've got an administration that in the final run up here, I guess we're about 3 weeks away from election day, surprisingly rather than run on their legislative record of the past two cycles, two years, uh, they've stooped to name-calling and trying to somehow entice us into a partisan political debate about campaign finance funding. When they're simultaneously silent, for example, on the single largest campaign involved in the '08 elections and probably in the 2010 elections and that's and that's organized labor who itself boasted of spending $420 million in '08 to elect this current majority and the president. Three of the primary unions out of organized labor, the AFL-CIO, AFSCME and the SEIU back in May announced they were going to combined spend, just those three, $150 million to protect incumbents in this election.

So, despite the fact that this Chamber supported this administration on TARP, on stimulus, on the auto rescue plan, on No Child Left Behind changes, on stem, which is the science technical engineering math issue with training teachers and students in this country, when we're aligned we don't seem to hear a lot. When we are policy adversaries, as we have been on health care, much aligned with the vast majority of the American public I would add, where we've been a different position than them, on the financial reg form issue, they seem to not take kindly to people who speak out and speak their views to represent the issues of other parties, which is exactly what we're doing. So we do not declare that we use any foreign money to fund any of our issue advocacy activities.

And as has been reported, and as I'm sure you know Jake, organizations across the political spectrum, if you go to the AFL-CIO website, you'll see half of the unions, nearly half listed have the word international in their name.

(NOTE: Josh Goldstein of the AFL-CIO says "That couldn't be more misleading. ZERO unions in the AFL-CIO are foreign and further, the dues the unions pay to be a part of the federation ONLY come from American workers.")

They have international members, the Sierra Club does, the National Rifle Association has international affiliations. Nothing new here at all. We've got an administration and some of its allies in and outside of Congress seem to us desperately lying-- trying to change the subject away from the economy, away from near double digit unemployment, trying to smear and demonize our name and our brand for, I guess, objecting to some of their policies and what seems to be, you know, 11th hour attempt to try to fire up and galvanize a dispirited, disappointed democratic base and top silence us in the process.

TAPPER: What Gibbs said today, when asked about this, is that there is a relationship, directly with the economy and with this discussion that they have about who's funding your ads specifically, because, a lot of Chamber members would object to some of the changes that the Obama administration is trying to make when it comes to, for instance, Wall Street. And if organizations such as the Chamber are trying to elect a lot of Republicans who will revisit those new regulations -- or to use Gibbs' words, bring things back to the way they were before the financial crisis -- that there is a direct relationship. And that's his argument.

JOSTEN: His argument falls, you know, flat, you know, and as a guy who's a spokesperson for an administration he should do a little bit of homework before he opens his mouth with those kind of comments.

First off, two years before this president was elected, my institution, the US Chamber of Commerce, formed a bipartisan committee to look at the entire financial regulatory marketplace. It was co-chaired by Richard Daley, a democrat from Chicago, and a member at the time of Goldman Sachs who was a vice chairman. And they came forth and called for regulation, it's not surprising because you have financial products, such as derivatives and default swaps, terminology Americans have come to learn as a result of the crisis, that not only were not regulated, they were off balance sheets.

We called for modernizing the regulatory system, we highlighted the fact that you had regulatory agencies in silos and in tunnels that didn't even share information, didn't talk to each other in terms of systemic risks. And by the way, I would quickly add, Mayor Bloomberg in New York and Senator Schumer had a commission and it found the same finding.

Those recommendations, two years before this entire financial crisis hit in the last year and the last months of the Bush administration, were ignored.

We're under no obligation as any organization or association in the United States is, to divulge who its members are, who its contributors are. We are under legal obligations to account and have an accounting method that ensures that in our accounts that funds or any aspect of money that comes from a foreign source is not in any way utilized in any political sense. We ensure that we do that

What this administration wants is a list of who the companies are who are contributors, and we saw last year, Jake, why, when we very publicly ran ads against the patients protections and affordable care act, quoting the CBO, quoting the head of CMS, the Centers for Medicare Services, that it would not in fact bend the cost curve down, that it would bend the cost curve up as they testified before the senate finance committee, there was an attempt to try and find out who were the corporations that were contributing to that effort.

When some of those corporate names were divulged, not by us, by others, what did they receive? They received protests, they received threats, they were intimidated, they were harassed, they had to hire additional security, they were recipients of a host of proxies leveled at those companies that had nothing to do with the purpose of those companies. So we know what the purpose here is. It's to harass and intimidate.

Much like we've seen in California with ballot initiatives -- when the proponents of ballot initiatives’ names have been divulged to the public -- those people were harassed, they were threatened with violence and they were intimidated.

TAPPER: Do you not understand the argument at all, that people in the public, sitting at home, watching their televisions at night, seeing campaign ads, would be better off, as good government groups argue, knowing who's behind those ads? Not just conservative groups or liberal, any group, that it would be better off if the public could assess who's behind the ads, or could assess the accuracy of the ads or the motivations of the ads, and part of that would be knowing who's paying for the ads?

JOSTEN: Well, look there's plenty of groups that do fact checks on ads for public consumption. There's been a lot of fact checks done in fact recently with the administrations kind of flailing allegations towards us. This is an attempt to change the subject. This has nothing to do with what you suggested. We put our name as a disclaimer, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, paid for by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, on our ads.

We don't shirk, and people know who we are, they know we're a business organization, they know we represent business interests, they know that the money to pay for our activities come from businesses that voluntarily contribute. Now that's entirely different than some of the ad hoc groups like, if you will, we've been around for almost 100 years. I don't think the American public is confused about who we are.

But the good government groups know as well as I do, because there's been studies done on it, with respect to disclosure, that forcing people to comply with disclosure rules in order to exercise their First Amendment, ultimately results in people remaining silent or uninvolved with little or no benefit to the public because it squelches speech.

The seminal Supreme Court case, I would remind your listeners, was NAACP vs. the state of Alabama, in 1953 I believe, when certain people wanted to know who the white Americans that were promoting integration in this country over segregation and out those people to harass them. The Supreme Court decided then. Hell no was the answer.

TAPPER: You mentioned the companies, the foreign companies, foreign multinationals that have been members of yours for a long time. Can you understand in any why some Americans might think, “well look, the money's going in to the general account of the Chamber, how do they know that that money is staying segregated from the money that is funding political activities? Why can't there be some assurance?”

JOSTEN: They know that, they have the same assurance from us they had from this administration when it raised $400 million in 2008, much of it from undisclosed sources that was helped to elect president Obama and the current congressional majority. And they know as much from us as they do from the AFL-CIO, as I just mentioned with nearly half of its affiliates having international in their name with international members. Look, if you're in the business that we are in, you are audited annually by the IRS, your activities are reviewed consistently by the federal election commission and others, that's fine with us, because we comply with all the laws.

I think this has nothing to do with the suggestions here, I think this has to do with a desperate administration, trying to change the subject away from what they have been doing, which is what the American people want to talk about, which is economy and jobs. Not this.

TAPPER: But why not just settle the dispute by opening your books?

JOSTEN: I've explained to you, we're not going to subject our contributors to harassment, to intimidation, and to threats and to invasions of privacy at their houses and at their places of business, which is what has happened every time there's been disclosure here.

I would note that the same people, in this administration and the congressional majority, that supported the so-called DISCLOSE act. If you take a look at that legislation, Jake, you'll find fascinatingly that it somehow amazingly carves out the single biggest monolithic contributor to elections: organized labor. 420 million bucks in 2008.

As government contractors, employees as government contractors, they're exempt, as recipients of government exams-- grants, they're exempt. Corporations with government contracts would not be exempt. They pick a funding level of $10,000 or more, average union dues is $380 annually for the 15 largest unions. You know they have disclaimer requirements that enables union affiliates to transfer up to $50,000 back and forth between themselves. they could set up an independent group to fund ads from.

It's very specific in this language in the Senate bill, and the House bill. It goes to great lengths to carve out a certain class of speaker, corporate speakers, and it goes to great lengths to carve in organized labor as speakers.

TAPPER: Last night, in a Wisconsin senate debate, the republican Ron Johnson who is backed by a lot of the Tea Party forces, certainly no friend to the Obama administration said that he thought that the Chamber should disclose. Does it bother you at all that your losing the arguments when you hear republicans like Ron Johnson say things like that?

JOSTEN: No, it does not bother me at all, it does not convince me that I am losing the argument. What it does it convince me that the attempts of this administration to try and push people that we have endorsed, or we are supporting, on their heels to be defensive over a flap that they've contrived out of foreign money on a liberal blog financed in terms of start-up by a guy by the name George Soros, got into the mainstream media, and the mainstream media has by and large rejected it, quite appropriately, so no it doesn't bother me.

TAPPER: Are you worried at all that this is damaging the reputation of the Chamber?

JOSTEN: Well so far, we don't have any proof that it has done that, it has certainly upped the profile of the Chamber. So I suspect and I hope that people are paying even more attention to the ads that we have up in this cycle, as the president is drawing more and more attention to us.

And specifically since we're the only group out there talking about issues, unlike the administration or the democrats running, I hope that the American people are drawn to pay attention to our issues.

A year ago when we ran issue ads across this country, hundreds of them, against the patients protection and affordable care act, citing the CBO report, citing the Center for Medicare Studies--Services report, the companies that got divulged publicly were harassed, were intimidated.


JOSTEN: The outside allies of this administration, the SEIU, the AFL-CIO, HCANN - health care action now network and, all combined and coordinated protests at those companies, at the CEOs homes in some cases, as they did hear with us. And they began a proxy campaign, through outside groups, the Center for Political Accountability, and another group, Walden Asset Management. This is a game, ok? And they like to play that game out. So it's clear that the game here is to harass and intimidate.

When I cited what took place in California, there is a gentleman who has done research for the Institute for Justice in California, on Prop 8 and what happened with the CA marriage protection act, when personal information about those donors to support Prop 8 was posted on the internet.

It led to death threats. It led to physical violence, vandalism and economic reprisals from against those people and their homes. So we know, how the public, if outed in supporting some controversial causes, if you will, we know what happens. We know what happens to our people.

TAPPER: There are a lot of people, progressives, liberals, who think this is just a bunch of rich people trying to protect their interests, trying to pass laws using their clout, and they don't want to be held accountable at all and so they give money to the Chamber, the Chamber then tries to defeat people who are not necessarily working in the interests of these corporations, and that this is just a matter of Fat Cats doing what Fat Cats do.

JOSTEN: Pretty fascinating, I mean who's the principal start-up supporter of MoveOn, and again the Center for American Progress. He's a fat cat under your definition, named George Soros and the Sandler family.

TAPPER: Right.

JOSTEN: But that's acceptable I guess.

TAPPER: I'm not saying one's accepta –

JOSTEN: When the other side puts up money to have a dialogue, which is what we would prefer to have, a dialogue around the issues, not a tit for tat bric brac of outlandish claims of inference which may be juicy to some in the press. Let's get serious. I don't think the American public is swayed by outlandish claims made even by the President or his spokespeople and minions.

TAPPER: One thing that David Axelrod said to me yesterday was the fear is not even about the Chamber, but the fear is that these campaign laws -- since they allow unlimited contributions, for political ads that can attack candidates and no disclosure rules, depending on how the group is incorporated -- the fear is a business can now go to a member of Congress, say “Vote this way, and if you don't, I form the Americans for Truth and Beauty Committee and run $3 million in negative ads and defeat you in your next election and nobody will know who's behind it.” Given that fear, that's not Chamber specific—

JOSTEN: This was Axelrod saying this?

TAPPER: Well, I'm, I'm paraphrasing him, but something along those lines, yes.

JOSTEN: He's really stretching.

TAPPER: But do you not understand why some people might say, “Let's just have full disclosure of everything”?

JOSTEN: Well so far Jake, what I've heard you offer me is Gibbs and Axelrod in a fantasy land, stretching and stretching and gasping and gasping for the next straw to grab onto here. Ok. Look, reality, I repeat, the single biggest outside funder, almost monolithically in the 2008 elections, was organized labor, under their boasting of $420 million.

We, the US Chamber, spent $33 million in issue ads. The Citizens United case, by the way, has absolutely nothing to do with issue advocacy advertising at all. Period. What Axelrod is talking about is how to deal with independent expenditures and corporations being able because the case was predicated upon the fact that media corporations, up until Citizens United uniquely had that right.

And Citizens United said, wait, the SC ruled, you can't select certain speakers. So they granted the same legal rights to unions and corporations. I would suggest however, that you will not see corporations do what Axelrod or you paraphrased, because they have employees that are Republicans, Democrats, and independents, they have shareholders that are Democrats, independents and Republicans, vendors and suppliers that are Democrats, independents and Republicans.

Corporations don't do that. We the US Chamber aren't doing independent expenditures with the magic express advocacy words of 'Vote for, Vote against.' Again, we draw a distinction on a member of congress' vote on a specific issue and discuss the issue. So there's a lot of confusion of a deliberate nature it sounds to me, listening to your paraphrasing of Axelrod since I didn't hear him, that has nothing to do with the Citizens United Case whatsoever.

TAPPER: I said this wasn't necessarily related to the Chamber issue, I was talking about this to --

JOSTEN: I know, but look, Target corporation in Minnesota, which is a very progressive company and exceptionally progressive with respect to the gay and lesbian community in that state, out some money behind a ballot initiative in that state on economic growth. And it just so happened that one of the people running for governor connected to that, is anti gay and lesbian rights. That company has had a boycott, they have been attacked, they have been harassed, and there have been attempts to demand, if you will, that they make equal contributions to other outside groups. Even though their history in that space speaks eloquently for itself.

So, what happens here is intimidate, harass, and try and push people away from participating in the process. We have no intention of not participating in the process.

-Jake Tapper

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