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The political chamber

Though somewhat of a sideshow, the controversy over possible foreign involvement in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's campaign spending is worrisome.

October 13, 2010

When the Supreme Court struck down limits on election spending by corporations and unions this year, it left undisturbed a federal law prohibiting foreigners — individuals or businesses — from spending on American election campaigns. Now Democrats, led by President Obama, have been insinuating that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce violated the law by depositing dues from its foreign chapters into a fund that is also used for political advertising.

The law is an important one, and the Federal Election Commission should certainly investigate any evidence that funding for the chamber's campaign activities comes from corporations outside the country. But so far the Democrats' claim has not been substantiated.

The allegation — first raised on a liberal blog — arises during an election campaign in which the chamber is sponsoring advertising primarily aimed at defeating Democratic candidates. (Among those it has targeted is California Sen. Barbara Boxer.) Accusing the chamber of promoting foreign influence over U.S. elections is an obvious way for Democrats to discredit the organization — and its favored candidates — at a time of widespread popular resentment over globalization, foreign investment and the outsourcing of jobs.

The chamber insists that no foreign funds are used to finance its political advertising and that it complies with applicable laws. The Democrats do not explicitly contradict that statement, but their language clearly is designed to suggest that the chamber might be breaking the law. For example, on Sunday the president said that donors to groups like the Chamber of Commerce "could even be foreign-owned corporations.... You don't know because they don't have to disclose."

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) has asked the FEC to ensure that organizations like the chamber demonstrate through a "reasonable accounting method," as the law requires, that foreign funds weren't used for campaign purposes. That's a good idea, though it's unclear whether the commission can enforce the law in an individual case unless a credible complaint is filed.

That said, the controversy over possible foreign involvement is to some extent a sideshow. The more worrisome aspect of the chamber's political activities is that, like other groups, it doesn't have to publicly disclose the names of the domestic corporations that are underwriting its political ads. It would be required to do so in a timely fashion under legislation known as the DISCLOSE Act, which fell victim to a Republican filibuster in the Senate. The danger is that the chamber's election efforts, however they are funded, might produce a Congress that is even more antagonistic to disclosure than the current one.

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