Reporting from Washington — The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is building a large-scale grass-roots political operation that has begun to rival those of the major political parties, funded by record-setting amounts of money raised from corporations and wealthy individuals.
The chamber has signed up some 6 million individuals who are not chamber members and has begun asking them to help with lobbying and, soon, with get-out-the-vote efforts in upcoming congressional campaigns.
The chamber's expansion into grass-roots organizing -- coupled with a large and growing fundraising apparatus that got a lift from Supreme Court rulings -- is part of a trend in which the traditional parties are losing ground to well-financed and increasingly assertive outside groups. The chamber is certainly better positioned than ever to be a major force on the issues and elections it focuses on each year, analysts think.
The new grass-roots program, the brainchild of chamber political director Bill Miller, is concentrating on 22 states. Among them are Colorado, where incumbent Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet is vulnerable; Arkansas, where Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln faces an uphill reelection battle; and Ohio, where the chamber sees opportunities in numerous House races and an open Senate seat.
The network, called Friends of the U.S. Chamber, has been used to generate more than a million letters and e-mails to members of Congress, 700,000 of them in opposition to the Democratic healthcare plan. That is an increase from 40,000 congressional contacts generated in 2008.
What makes the initiative possible is a swelling tide of money. The chamber spent more than $144 million on lobbying and grass-roots organizing last year, a 60% increase over 2008, and well beyond the spending of individual labor unions or the Democratic or Republican national committees.
The chamber is expected to substantially exceed that spending level in 2010.
The chamber's expanding influence is worrisome to top officials in the White House -- including Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who has expressed concern about the chamber in the past, and senior advisor Valerie Jarrett, who tried to build direct contacts with company executives last fall when the chamber was fighting the administration's legislation to regulate carbon emissions.
Several companies, including Pacific Gas & Electric and Apple, left the chamber over its stance on climate policies, but since then many more firms have joined and made substantial contributions, chamber President Tom Donohue said.
Two major factors are driving the chamber's growing success in fundraising.
First, President Obama and Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress have alarmed a widening circle of business leaders with their calls for greater government involvement in healthcare, tighter federal regulation of the financial industry and legislation to help unions organize workers, among other issues.
Second, the recent Supreme Court ruling that corporations have a free-speech right to spend money to help elect or defeat candidates not only struck down a century of laws limiting such spending, but it also made many business executives feel more comfortable about using corporate money for political purposes.
Industries that are the most directly affected by Washington policies and regulations -- pharmaceuticals, for example -- have always spent lavishly on lobbying and politics. But many others have held back, deterred by concern over violating the complex laws on campaign spending and by a general sense that putting money into politics might open companies to criticism.
The Supreme Court decision appears to have allayed those concerns, according to corporate lawyers and others involved in the process.
"In the past a lot of companies and wealthy individuals stood on the sidelines," said Robert Kelner, who heads the Election and Political Law Practice Group at Covington & Burling, one of Washington's most influential corporate law firms.
"In just the last election, we had the spectacle of John McCain threatening to prosecute his own supporters if they spent their money on outside groups that ran advertising in the presidential race.
"That cloud has been lifted," he said.
Using trade associations such as the chamber as the vehicle for spending corporate money on politics has an extra appeal: These groups can take large contributions from companies and wealthy individuals in ways that will probably avoid public disclosure requirements.
The chamber has developed that into something of a specialty: Under a system pioneered by Donohue, corporations have contributed money to the chamber, which then produced issue ads targeting individual candidates without revealing the names of the businesses underwriting the ads.