Chamber of Commerce loves and hates Chris Van Hollen

The national business group blasts the House Democrat over campaign finance, but his local chapter loves him

Published April 23, 2010 7:24PM (EDT)

  (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)
(AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

Democrats will introduce legislation next week that tries to respond to the Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, the case that struck down limits on corporate spending on political campaigns. And predictably enough, business groups don't much like what they're hearing about the bill.

A proposal circulated by Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., a member of the House Democratic leadership team, would require corporations to identify themselves as the sponsors of TV ads; force more disclosure of campaign-related spending by corporations;  ban foreign-owned companies from spending money on U.S. elections; bar big government contractors and TARP recipients from spending on elections; and ban coordination between outside groups and candidates in the 90 days before an election. Unions would also be covered. "We hope that people on both sides of the aisle can agree that Americans have a right to know who is spending money on elections," a set of Democratic talking points obtained by Salon says.

So the U.S. Chamber of Commerce came out Friday morning with a ferocious press release aimed at Van Hollen. The Chamber called the proposal "nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to hijack the political playing field to his advantage on the eve of mid-term elections," and predicted Democrats would still lose a ton of seats in November even if the bill became law. "We believe it is the American people who should choose their congressional representatives, not partisan campaign operatives posing as legislators," the group said. That's a flick at Van Hollen's other job as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

It just so happens, though, that while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce may loathe Van Hollen, he's quite popular with local business groups. The Montgomery County, Md., chamber named Van Hollen its legislator of the year, picking him from all the local, state and federal officials who represent the area for the honor. "With all due respect to the perspective of a national business group that may not know Congressman Van Hollen as well as we do, we have seen on a daily basis how hard he has worked to champion issue after issue for our business community," Georgette "Gigi" Godwin, the president of the local chamber, said in a statement. "While we don’t endorse candidates for elective office at the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, we absolutely do take note of effective legislators and how strongly and consistently they support our businesses."

Van Hollen aides were quick to point out that the local group honored him last year, and just as quick to turn the U.S. Chamber attack around politically.

"It's not really surprising that powerful special interests based in Washington would be throwing temper tantrums over efforts to curb their influence and increase transparency so the American people know who is spending money on our elections," said spokesman Doug Thornell. "They may feel comfortable making their decisions behind closed doors, but the American people want sunlight in our democracy."

By Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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