The US Chamber of Commerce is reloading.

On the heels of the Chamber's midterm election victories, where it helped elect a raft of conservative, free market candidates, the lobbying behemoth is hitting up its members anew for more cash to fight new proposed regulations here in Washington. As the Center for Public Integrity's Peter Stone reports on Wednesday, the Chamber latest fundraising push targets big banks, health insurers, and oil companies in an effort to drum up more money for lobbying, advertising, and even lawsuits when necessary.

The crux of the Chamber's latest pitch is all too familiar. A "tsunami of regulations" by the Obama administration amounts to the "biggest single threat to job creation" in the US, as Chamber chairman Tom Donohue put it recently. With that in mind, the Chamber's goals include defanging the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, battling new greenhouse gas reduction rules from the Environmental Protection Agency, and influencing how President Obama's historic health care reform bill is implemented in the coming months.

So has the Chamber had any success with its cash call? Sure looks like it. At least one major oil corporation has cut a six-figure check to the Chamber, Stone reports, while deep-pocketed private equity funds including KKR and the Blackstone Group are leaning toward funding the Chamber's anti-regulation war chest on financial issues.

Here's more from Stone:

Also targeted are several major health insurers that last year kicked in much of the $86 million that was funneled through America’s Health Insurance Plans to the Chamber. That money was spent on a huge but unsuccessful advertising effort to kill health care legislation. A health industry source says that he’s not certain how the new Chamber pitch is going with that sector.

Josten told the Center that “it’s natural you’re going to solicit people who have expressed and supported your previous efforts.” Josten said that the effort is “getting some receptivity,” noting that the threat of new regulations “is not lost on the business world."

The Chamber’s fresh initiative will include beefed-up lobbying, new advertising, online projects, and litigation to thwart regulations it opposes. “We’ll look for opportunities to challenge regulations,” Josten explained. Some of these challenges are going to be “legislative, some are going to be regulatory and some will be in the courts."

The Republican sweep in 2010 went all the way down the ballot, and it's gradually becoming apparent that some of the GOP’s lower-profile victories—particularly at the state level—could also have major consequences. In five states, for instance, Republicans managed to flip the seats for state attorneys general, giving them control of 21 AG slots in the 43 states that elect their state AGs. (The office is appointed in the other states.) Though Democrats still hold a one-seat majority in the states that elect AGs, the midterm elections have given the GOP more AG slots than the party has held for decades. And Republican AGs have already indicated that they’re eager to use their office to become ideological crusaders—particularly as a means of defying Obama and Washington’s Democratic leadership.

As I write in my latest magazine story, Virginia attorney general and tea party hero Ken Cuccinelli has demonstrated exactly how far Republican AGs are willing to go to push their agenda. Cuccinelli was the first AG to file suit against the federal health care law—a legal challenge that now poses the greatest immediate threat to health reform, more so than anything that Congress is currently capable of doing. Cuccinelli has since set  his sights on every other major pillar of the Democratic platform—most recently decreeing that school officials have the authority to seize and search students' cell phones and laptops if they suspect unseemly behavior. He's also continued to use his office as a bully pulpit to slam "Obamacare," claiming last month the federal health law could force Americans to buy gym membership.

Cuccinelli represents a new breed of state AGs who have cut a profile for themselves as high-profile, strident swashbucklers. As I explain, it's a role that their Democratic counterparts had originally pioneered by targeting tobacco companies and other big corporations. Intentionally or not, the crusades of Democratic AGs like Eliot Spitzer ended up politicizing the office, turning it into even more of a political stepping stone and putting Republicans on the defensive. Now that Republican AGs have gained more of the upper hand, it's not surprising that they're eager to wage their own war.

If the US Chamber of Commerce was the kind of nuts-and-bolts business association that its name suggests, it would stay out of the debate over extending the Bush-era tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. After all, the personal income tax doesn't directly affect the companies that the Chamber claims as members. And if stimulating the overall economy was the Chamber's goal, then a smarter use of the money would have been to extend unemployment benefits for 800,000 US workers who've lost their jobs. So why has the nation's most powerful business lobby made tax cuts for the über-wealthy a top priority?

Chamber Watch, a union-backed watchdog group, has dug up one possible answer: Self-dealing. The people who control the Chamber's purse strings are the same corporate CEOs who populate the top of the personal income tax bracket. In a report released yesterday, Chamber Watch itemizes some of the biggest tax-cut-extensions that could befall the Chamber's best friends:

  • Rupert Murdoch, the CEO of News Corporation, whose donation of $1 million to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce led to well-publicized shareholder outrage, would pocket more than $1.3 million.
  • Don Blankenship, a former U.S. Chamber Board member and the CEO of Massey Energy, whose company owned the mine in which twenty-nine miners died in April 2010’s mining disaster, the worst in forty years, would take home more than $700,000.
  • David Cote, the CEO of Honeywell and a member of the National Fiscal Commission, who keynoted an address to the National Chamber Foundation expressing concern about the national debt over the next ten years, would get a tax cut of over $1.2 million.
  • CEOs of big banks on Wall Street, who helped collapse the economy and then used the U.S. Chamber to fight stronger financial regulations, stand to reap between $700,000 and $1.6 million each.
  • The CEOs of the health insurance industry, whose industry saw an overall increase in profits this year even while they slashed benefits and instituted breathtaking premium increases, are looking to personally benefit from another hit on the middle class by taking in between $335,000 and $875,000.
  • U.S. Chamber President and CEO, Thomas Donohue, who has shifted the Chamber's focus from serving mainstream business to serving mainstream business to serving the interests of CEOs who write the biggest checks, will personally gain over $200,000.

Of course, the Chamber's other motive for backing tax breaks for the rich is probably ideological. Maybe a group that sides with the GOP as much as the Chamber does is hardwired not to realize that Reaganomics has proved time and again to be a catastrophic failure. Whatever the reason for the Chamber's trickle-down love, though, very little of it is getting to the 98 percent of Americans who aren't in the top tax bracket.

The tea party lost the food fight. Despite opposition from conservative activists, including the professional lobbyists at FreedomWorks, the Senate passed a landmark food safety bill 73 to 25 on Tuesday that would give the federal government broad new powers to police the food system. The vote, a rare display of bipartisanship, virtually assures that President Obama will be able to sign the bill before Americans carve up their Christmas goose.

Not too much should be read into any one political act, but the failure of the tea party to derail the legislation is significant—perhaps a sign that the movement has been given too much credit as a political powerbroker. Tea party activists have been vocal and have focused politicians' attention on fiscal issues like the deficit. And to be sure, the tea partiers helped get out the vote for Republican candidates. But in many cases, they only succeeded in electing candidates who were also heavily backed by corporate interests. More than 60 percent of tea party candidates lost their races. Those who won were people like multimillionaire Ron Johnson, who defeated progressive Democrat Sen. Russ Feingold in Wisconsin. But Feingold was also heavily targeted by the US Chamber of Commerce and other corporate interests who hated his stands on everything from mandatory arbitration to campaign finance reform. Outside groups spent at least $5 million to help defeat Feingold, making it tough to attribute Johnson's victory to tea party organizing.

If the food safety vote is any indication, a similar dynamic may be at work regarding the tea party’s legislative agenda. Food safety may simply be an issue that doesn’t get tea party activists frothing the way, say, health care reform or auditing the Fed do. But what’s more likely is that the tea party is no more effective in fighting corporate interests than MoveOn. And the vast majority of the food industry backed this bill. Poisoning customers, as it turns out, is very expensive and especially bad for business. Big Ag and the food processors decided that if they were going to do something about the problem, it would be a lot cheaper to let the taxpayers pay for food inspections rather than foot the tab themselves, and they got behind the bill. Not even Glenn Beck could rally enough tea party opposition to kill it. On the day of the vote, Beck urged his millions of viewers and listeners to oppose the measure. But it passed by a wide margin, with 15 GOP votes, including those of newly sworn-in Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk, who beat a tea party candidate in the GOP primary.

Just as tea party candidates don't win elections without corporate backing, when the tea party is pressed into battle against big business, it usually loses. That’s what happened with the health care debate. Despite the massive protests—such as the angry showings at packed town hall meetings in the summer of 2009—all the tea party fist-waving failed to stop the bill's passage. True, the Democrats had control of both the House and Senate, but that has never guaranteed progress on health care in the past. The difference this time around was that the Obama administration successfully bought off many of the special health care interests that might have otherwise fought the bill. The drug companies, the powerful American Medical Association, and much of the insurance industry were instead sitting at the table, rather than lobbying to kill the bill outright.

That's not to dismiss the movement entirely, of course. The tea party has some influence, but only under the right and increasingly limited conditions, such as with vulnerable moderate Republicans. As my colleague Suzy Khimm elaborates on today in another post here, Sen. Olympia Snowe, the moderate Republican from Maine, switched her stance on earmarks this week, voting Tuesday in favor of an earmark moratorium amendment. (The amendment ultimately failed.) In March, Snowe voted against a moratorium. Khimm attributes the change to the tea party’s threat to challenge her in the GOP primary in 2012. And earlier this month, after Glenn Beck erroneously reported that Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) had voted to advance the food safety bill, tea partiers got fired up enough that Hatch posted a column on Beck’s website emphasizing that he did indeed oppose the bill. (Hatch’s colleague from Utah, Robert Bennett was unexpectedly ousted in the GOP primary this year with help from tea party activists, many of whom see Hatch as their next target.)

But in general, the tea party movement has only been truly successful when its interests align with corporate America's. Whether their agenda is praiseworthy or not, the tea partiers have shown a commitment to working through the democratic process to achieve their goals, successfully mobilizing thousands of people who, up until then, hadn't been very politically engaged. Yet when it comes to real, from-the-ground-up change, even the tea partiers can’t usually pull it off. Perhaps that’s a good thing: Letting a small group of angry people direct policy changes from one year to the next isn’t exactly a formula for a stable democracy. At the same time, however, it means that corporate money really does have a chokehold on the political system, and even the angriest and most organized of grassroots activists aren’t going to do much to change that.

Triumphant after the GOP's midterm victories, tea party activists quickly zeroed in on their next crusade: convincing the party that benefited from their support to adopt a ban on earmarks. Though Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) managed to schedule a vote on a two-year earmark moratorium, the measure fell short Tuesday morning on a 56 to 39 vote. Senate Democrats managed to score a rare bipartisan win by passing a larger food safety bill attached to the earmark ban, despite a hue and cry from the tea party. But though the tea party may have lost this round on Capitol Hill, a few unexpected votes suggested that the grassroots right could still have an outsized impact by extracting concessions from the most politically vulnerable members of Congress.

Though eight Republicans broke from their party to vote against the earmark moratorium, there was at least one surprise when the votes were cast: Sen. Olympia Snowe, the moderate Maine Republican who had voted against the earmark moratorium when it came up in March but voted for the ban this time around.


LOGAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan – U.S. Army Cpl. Mitchell A. Weaver, a Williamsport, Md., native and a wheeled vehicle mechanic assigned to Company F, 2nd Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment’s Task Force Storm, troubleshoots Lal-Mohammad-Trabi’s three-kilowatt generator at Baraki Barak in Logar Province Nov. 18. (Photo by U.S. Army Cpl. Cooper T. Cash, 210th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, Task Force Patriot)

Benjamin Wittes, a national security law expert at the Brookings Institution, has posted an extensive response to my post earlier today about the debate surrounding Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical Al Qaeda propagandist with American citizenship who is supposedly hiding out in Yemen. The Obama administration has reportedly targeted al-Awlaki for death.

(Before I launch into all this, I want to thank Wittes for taking the time and energy to respond and engage. I've really enjoyed the back and forth.)

To recap: I accused Wittes of using a straw man argument to attack the position of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights, two groups that are suing in the hopes of getting a court to restrict the circumstances under which the government can order al-Awlaki's (or another citizen's) death.