A bitter fight has erupted in Washington, D.C. in recent weeks surrounding the fate of a much-needed transportation and infrastructure bill. Congressional Democrats wanted to pass a bill that would fund projects to help rebuild roads and bridges, but Republicans were against the idea.
So, in an attempt to get something more tangible out of the legislation, Congressional Republicans loaded the bill down with dozens of handouts to the oil industry, including immediate approval of the Keystone XL pipeline and expanded access to U.S. lands for oil exploration. The amendments would also take national gas tax money away from public transportation projects, and reduce the amount of federal contributions to public employee pensions – two actions that will have devastating effects on middle class America. And with the fight bringing the discussion on the legislation to a halt, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce took it upon themselves to hit the road and sell the bill to the American public.
From the U.S. Chamber:
The business group will be hosting breakfasts, lunches and policy roundtables with local chambers and business associations this week in 12 different cities in Ohio, Idaho, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama and Louisiana.
Janet Kavinoky, the Chamber’s executive director of transportation and infrastructure, will be on the road trip, along with Alex Herrgott, one of the business group’s transportation lobbyists.
“The idea is to get out, give people a good sense what the bill is and get them talking to their members of Congress and have them get the bill done,” Kavinoky said. “We want Congress to feel like it needs to come back to Washington and get the bill done and put it to bed.”
To be fair, the U.S. Chamber in the past has been a strong supporter of increased infrastructure spending and rebuilding. They even joined forces with the AFL-CIO in recent years to help push Congress to improve our crumbling roads and bridges.
But the current amount of money and effort behind the push for the current transportation bill is unprecedented, which is not surprising considering how the Chamber’s own members would benefit from the bill in its current form. And when you consider the fact that most of the real infrastructure and transit projects have been cut, the intentions of the Chamber become more and more clear.
Salon lays out what the bill would actually accomplish:
When the GOP announced its transportation bill last month, Capitol HIll jaws dropped. The $260 billion five-year plan would, for the first time, tie transit funding to a bevy of new oil and gas projects. One would open up the long-preserved Arctic National Wildlife Refugee. Another would offer up millions of acres of public lands to shale drilling. Still another would open nearly all the nation’s coastline, including the recently oil-soaked Gulf of Mexico, and mandate a host of new offshore drilling operations.
You’ve almost got to admire the sheer audacity of House Republicans: This was supposed to be a transportation bill, not a bonanza for the oil industry.
The actual transit elements are equally aggressive. Pedestrian and bike programs would be shut down; Safe Routes to School, which does exactly what it sounds like, would be eliminated. And to free up money for highway expansion and bridge repair (which the bulk of the $260 billion is allotted for), the bill would sever the funding mechanism for public transit. For 30 years, one-fifth of the cash flow from the federal gas tax has gone to transit, and this bill would boot it out of the Highway Trust Fund altogether, forcing it to compete for financing with all other programs.
Additionally, the Chamber’s own financial support for members of Congress seems to run contradictory to their push for infrastructure investment. As Bill Scher wrote at The Huffington Post a few months back:
No outside group spent more to help Republicans take over than Congress than the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, dropping $31 million funneled from undisclosed donors on ads that attacked supporters of economic stimulus for spending recklessly and failing to create jobs.
Funny thing about that is: a major supporter of President Obama's stimulus law was the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. But instead of backing lawmakers who helped the member companies of the Chamber from suffering a full-blown Great Depression, the Chamber decided to punish them because many also backed reform of health care and Wall Street.
The Chamber's 2010 political investment paid off. It got the right-wing anti-government Congress it paid for, putting at risk implementation of the President's signature reform efforts.
The Chamber spent $86 million to try to kill health reform. What's stopping the Chamber from taking its own support for infrastructure investment just as seriously?
Apparently, the way to get the Chamber to get serious about an issue is to do what Congressional Republicans did with the transportation bill, and load it down with completely unrelated and unnecessary giveaways to the oil industry.
The U.S. Chamber has an impressive history of fighting for the oil industry. In November of last year, they filed an amicus brief on behalf of Shell oil, in response to a lawsuit brought by environmental groups attempting to challenge Shell’s recently-awarded contracts for offshore drilling exploration.
The Chamber also ran TV ads during the same time period attacking Ohio Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown for voting against increased offshore oil drilling.
But even more than the oil projects tied to the bill, the Chamber is aggressively pushing for the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. Citing the same debunked talking points as Republican politicos, the Chamber tells us that the pipeline will create jobs, lower energy costs, and reduce our dependence on foreign oil.
So the big question is what does the Chamber stand to gain from increased oil drilling? The answer is simple – Money. Among the known Chamber members (and heavy hitters in the political and financial fields) are Exxon Mobil, Shell, BP, Chevron, and Conoco Phillips. U.S. Chamber Watch details the connections these companies have to the Chamber:
Exxon Mobil: Exxon Mobil was represented on the board of the U.S. Chamber’s Institute for Legal Reform (ILR), according to the ILR’s 2009 IRS Form990.
Royal Dutch Shell: Among other connections, in 2010, the U.S. Chamber filed an amicus brief defending Shell in a multi-million dollar punitive damages case.
BP: BP is a member of the Chamber and the Chamber lobbied on its behalf after the company’s devastating April 2010 oil spill.
Chevron: Chevron is a member and a donor to the U.S. Chamber. Chevron gave the Chamber an amount of $250,000 in both 2008 and 2009.
ConocoPhillips: Conoco Phillips is represented on the Chamber’s board.
The Chamber has consistently fought for these companies, even when winning for their oil buddies means losing for their other members. The Chamber actively fought against a bill in Congress that would have provided capital for small businesses because it would have repealed the federal subsidies for Big Oil.
They have also fought for increased oil drilling in protected lands – the same items that the current transportation bill would finally allow.
The Chamber’s current “road show” for the transportation bill is identical to one launched this same time last year in support of expanded oil drilling in the United States. The only difference is that this trip is billed as the promotion of infrastructure, not Big Oil handouts. But their agenda remains the same.