“The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is the world’s largest business organization representing companies of all sizes across every sector of the economy. They all share one thing: They count on the U.S. Chamber to be their voice in Washington, across the country, and around the world.”
– The United States Chamber of Commerce
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is the most powerful trade organization in the world. It spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year to influence the actions of government, and prides itself on its many members. It advocates for what it considers to be pro-business policies. But does the Chamber always represent the interest of all its members?
When it comes to climate change and congressional campaigns, the answer is an indisputable no.
Despite strong calls for climate action from U.S. businesses, the Chamber’s 2019 Annual Scorecard does not take climate action into account. This results in a celebration of “climate deniers.”
When Companies’ Trade Associations Sing a Different Tune
While U.S. companies are stepping up in record numbers to set emissions-reduction targets for their internal operations, congressional action remains a critical missing ingredient in achieving strong climate action in the United States. One reason is that corporate actions have not always translated to responsible policy advocacy.
For example, a recent article highlighted five companies that undermined their verbal support for climate policy by donating — via their corporate political action committees (PACs) — to politicians that actively blocked such policies. These companies are just five of numerous examples, but PAC donations and direct fundraising are not the only or the most important ways that company spending influences elections.
Many companies also belong to trade associations, which are uniquely positioned to exert political influence. As two experts put it, “The privileged relationships established between trade associations and government have provided private industry with an unprecedented level of access to government.” The Chamber of Commerce is the biggest such trade association in the United States and has tremendous influence over which candidates wind up in office. As a recipient of corporate money via membership fees, trade associations’ funding choices reflect on member companies.
Companies can, and should, be looking closely at who their trade groups are supporting and whether those candidates will advance climate action. The AAA Leadership Framework, developed by WRI and nine other organizations, challenges companies to adopt a science-based climate policy agenda, including by holding trade associations accountable for their policy positions and support for political candidates.
How is the US Chamber of Commerce Channeling the Voices of its Corporate Members on Climate Change?
In 2019, the “voice of business”— the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — did something noteworthy. It updated its climate policy position statement. The Chamber publicly acknowledged the threat of anthropogenic climate change and stated: “inaction is not an option.” This was a major shift for an association that has been famously credited with killing the Clean Power Plan and influencing President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement.
So how might those words translate to action, particularly when it comes to allocating funds to candidates in 2020? The answer lies in part with the Chamber’s “How They Voted” scorecard.
This scorecard looks at how each member of Congress has aligned with the Chamber on its priority issues throughout the year. Issues are communicated via letters to Capitol Hill calling on congressional members to support, oppose and/or sponsor specific legislation. Congressional members whose scorecard performance is at least 70% aligned, meaning that they conformed to the Chamber’s asks at least 70% of the time, receive the Chamber’s Spirit of Enterprise award. Receipt of the award communicates the support of the Chamber, generally influences the Chamber’s election endorsements, and connects to how the Chamber funds political candidates.1
Also in 2019, the Chamber decided to overhaul the scorecard to incentivize bipartisanship and leadership. It was a response to growing criticism over a history of largely partisan, conservative funding outcomes. Given that the Chamber says it is committed to action on climate change, this update to the scorecard could also be an opportunity to support Congress members with a positive voting record on climate policy.
Unfortunately, the Chamber’s 2019 “How They Voted” scorecard gave “climate deniers,” according to the Center for American Progress Action Fund,2 an average score of 81%. Of the 259 members of Congress who received the Chamber’s Spirit of Enterprise award for 2019, almost half can be classified as “climate deniers.” In fact, 87% of “climate deniers” in the 116th Congress received the Chamber’s award for pro-business votes.
This is not to say that there is a causal relationship between being a “climate denier” and an individual’s standing on the Chamber’s scorecard; there are a multitude of factors that need to be considered. But the analysis does reveal a concerning reality that must be addressed.
Companies committed to climate action may want to ask themselves if the Chamber is wielding its political influence in a way that truly serves their priorities and their reputation — particularly if they value climate action.
Chamber Scorecard Elevates Climate-Oppositional Policy Makers
The fact that those not acknowledging the reality of climate change could score so highly on the Chamber’s scorecard demonstrates that the content of the 2019 scorecard itself is not taking climate action into account. This comes down to methodology.
The legislation included in the legislative and leadership components of the scorecard largely excludes bills focused on climate action. When the scorecard does include such legislation, it is a climate proposal/structure the Chamber opposes.3 We understand that the Chamber’s scorecard is designed to encompass the association's many interests, but the omission of positive votes on climate action and absence of any apparent attempt to integrate climate change into the scorecard raises questions about the credibility of the Chamber's commitments.
Because the Chamber is such a prolific funder of political campaigns, the outcome of the scorecard directly affects who is elected to Congress. Failure to account for climate change in the scorecard — and the resulting high scores (and ostensibly, funding/endorsement) for so many “climate deniers” — is likely to elongate the careers of those who perpetuate a culture of climate change denial. This leads to, and is used to excuse, a lack of bipartisan climate action on Capitol Hill. The Chamber is working against its own stated desire for bipartisan climate action in Congress.
So, What Now?
The Chamber expressed support for the United States remaining in the Paris Agreement, acknowledged the important role of the power of business in addressing climate change, and noted the importance of bipartisan climate change solutions. These actions made headlines, but are undermined by some of the Chamber’s choices, including the content of its scorecard and subsequent participation in campaigns for candidates that fail to recognize climate action. This means that the Chamber’s members, many of which support climate action, are perhaps unknowingly spending money in opposition of their interests and publicly stated climate commitments.
We propose three options to begin addressing this discrepancy:
First, both the Chamber and its members should begin tracking how its actions on non-climate issues have an impact on climate action. Knowing that a pattern is playing out is the first step to making a change. Reporting and acknowledging that pattern would be an added bonus.
Secondly, within the bounds of its current methodology, the Chamber should be more proactive in ensuring that climate-friendly legislation is included in its scorecard AND, importantly, that anti-climate votes are not rewarded.
Of course, inclusion of one or even two climate-friendly bills may not be enough to significantly shift congressmembers’ scores in a way that would remove climate oppositional candidates from the coveted 70% threshold. Therefore, a third option is for the Chamber to devise a climate litmus test and apply it to all campaign financing decisions. The Chamber could continue to give the Spirit of Enterprise award to whomever best represents its diverse interests, while also declining to spend companies’ money on candidates who have proven to be dead ends on climate change. A move like this would rapidly work to ensure that Congress is filled with the bipartisan climate champions the Chamber supposedly supports. We understand this might be an unprecedented move for the Chamber, but so is the challenge of climate change.
The Chamber has a long way to go, and it is not alone. Although we did not cover it here, other trade associations also play a role in election outcomes. With the U.S. elections fast approaching, it is essential that companies examine the pathways of their political giving now.
If the Chamber is serious about its climate commitments, it should develop its scorecard accordingly. If its members are serious about their own climate targets, they should ensure the trade associations they participate in uplift the voices of climate champions in Congress.
The exact methodology governing the Chamber’s campaign disbursements is unknown. However, building on the observations of others who discuss the relationship between funding and a candidate’s scorecard rating, we analyzed data from the prior election cycle and prior scorecards. During the 2018 election cycle the Chamber of Commerce of The United States of America PAC disbursed funds to 88 candidates, 71 of these candidates were included in the Chamber’s 2016 and/or 2017 scorecard (this means they served in Congress in the 2016-2017 period). The average Chamber Scorecard score of candidates receiving funding (the average of their 2016 and 2017 scores) over those years is about 90%, while none scored below 60% and only 5 scored below 70%. ↩︎
According to CAP Action Fund a “climate denier” is someone who does “not believe in the scientific consensus that human activity is making the Earth’s climate change.” This can involve believing climate change is not real, the Earth has always experience a changing climate and this is a standard cycle of warming, humans are not the primary cause of climate change, and/or that the science on climate change is unsettled or there remains uncertainty. The application of this standard to congress members was conducted by CAP Action Fund and based on a review of public statements, and office outreach when necessary. The “climate denier” classification is not a perfect measure of bipartisan climate action, as it is not based on legislative decisions, but it establishes a standard of agreement on the challenges of climate change. ↩︎
Even within lower value sections of the scorecard, like the co-sponsorship-based legislative leadership score, there is no support for wholistic climate legislation (though support for a smaller, detailed piece of legislation on carbon capture, utilization and storage is included). ↩︎