For years, big (and often unpopular) corporations like drug and tobacco companies, have used innocuous-sounding trade associations to lobby on their behalf, without having to disclose who picks up the tab. But a new law Congress passed earlier this year is designed to put an end to the practice. Under the threat of criminal penalties, the lobbying reform act requires trade groups to disclose members who contribute more than $5,000 in a quarter and who are involved in planning or directing lobbying activities. Not surprisingly, big businesses are not happy about this, particularly the criminal penalty part.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers fired the first shot across the bow yesterday, sending a letter to the Secretary of the Senate and the clerk of the House asking for “guidance” on how to interpret the new reporting requirements. They’re essentially asking to exempt a lot of people who might otherwise be outed by the new law on the grounds that the law is an unconstitutional intrusion into their inner workings.
The chamber isn’t fond of disclosure. For instance, the Institute for Legal Reform, the chamber’s $40 million-a-year tort reform lobbying arm, failed to disclose to the IRS four years and millions of dollars worth of taxable spending on political races. A few years ago, it secretly bought its own newspaper in Madison County, Illinois, where it was spending millions to defeat liberal state court judges. The paper generated a regular stream of chamber propaganda that got treated like bona fide news until its owners got outed by the Washington Post. Despite the chamber’s complaints about the evils of the American legal system, yesterday’s letter is a pretty good indication that it will spend some time there before it ever gives up exactly how much radioactive industries contribute to its lobbying efforts.