By Carol Costello and Bob Ruff, CNN
(CNN) – Once upon a time, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its many local chapters went about the business of championing free enterprise and the advancement of commerce throughout the nation.
They still do all of that, but nearly 90 years after its birth, the Chamber of 2010 is not your grandfather’s or even your father’s Chamber.
Today, the nation’s largest business association is a key player in the crafting of legislation, as well as the electing of candidates for public office.
A perfect example: the health care debate. Turn on cable TV for any amount of time and you’re likely to see more than once this Chamber advertisement urging Congress to vote down the Democratic plan.
Bruce Josten, executive vice president of the Chamber, told us the president’s plan “is not going to work” and that “when you’re trying to restructure fundamentally between a sixth and a fifth of the economy all at once, you are going to have unintended consequences.“
The Chamber’s health care message, says Evan Tracey of the Campaign Media Advisory Group, made its way into $42 million worth of TV ads last year. So far this year, the Chamber’s TV ad total is $3 million and growing.
And that’s not all.
The Chamber has gathered a massive database of supporters to operate a grassroots campaign in the fall to elect candidates who support their political agenda. Josten told us they “have a database of about six million names of people that we can reach out to and activate.”
David Artush, of the Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy organization, says the Chamber's massive advertising budget, grassroots organization, and extensive lobbying activities “is really frightening to members of Congress. It makes them listen to the Chamber’s lobbyists.”
Their $144 million lobbying budget last year, says Artush, “will buy you a lot. You can buy, you know, a lobbyist to talk to every member of Congress every day.”
“So?” asks Josten. “We’re a lobbying organization. That’s what we do!” He says “there’s a Republican and Democratic Governor’s Association. And the Boy Scouts have a lobbyist. The AARP is a lobbyist for the elderly. The churches have lobbyists…I mean, it really doesn’t matter what walk of life these people are when they kind of recoil at the term lobbying or lobbyists. But they all probably have at least three or probably a half dozen that are working for them here.”
Arkush doesn’t say there’s anything illegal about the Chamber’s vast resources to influence Washington. “It is the way the game is played, unfortunately. But they’ve got more resources to play it better than anyone else.”