Joe Manchin's "highly suspicious" reversal on voting bill follows donation from corporate lobby

U.S. Chamber of Commerce sure loves Joe Manchin. Is that why his op-ed on voting bill echoed their talking points?

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published June 10, 2021 5:40AM (EDT)

Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) heads to a vote in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol on June 8, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)
Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) heads to a vote in the Senate at the U.S. Capitol on June 8, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

Sen. Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat famous for his vow to maintain the Senate filibuster and thereby scuttle much of President Biden's agenda, recently published an op-ed opposing the For the People Act, Democrats' whopping voting-rights bill. That article strongly echoed talking points from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — and appeared shortly after the influential pro-business lobby resumed donations to Manchin's campaign after nearly a decade.

Manchin, who co-sponsored the sweeping voting rights legislation in 2019 and has supported filibuster reform in the past, became the first Senate Democrat to oppose the bill this week while reiterating his opposition to changing the filibuster, a key roadblock to voting reform. Skeptical members of Manchin's party have questioned the reasons for his opposition, especially after after a recent poll found that a majority of West Virginia voters support changing the filibuster rules and that 79% of the state's voters — including a large majority of Republicans — support the For the People Act.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., suggested that Manchin's opposition to the proposal and filibuster reform may really be about measures in the bill aimed at cracking down on lobbyists and dark money.  

"This is probably just as much a part of Joe Manchin's calculus than anything else," she told MSNBC on Tuesday. "You look at the Koch brothers and you look at organizations like the Heritage Foundation and conservative lobby groups that are doing a victory lap ... over the fact that Manchin refuses to change on the filibuster. And I think that these two things are very closely intertwined."

Americans for Prosperity, a group backed by billionaire Republican donor Charles Koch, has explicitly targeted Manchin in its pressure campaign to defeat the legislation even though their own data shows that provisions cracking down on dark money are highly popular, including among Republican voters. Heritage Action, the advocacy arm of the Koch-backed Heritage Foundation, organized a rally earlier this year to pressure Manchin to oppose the bill. Heritage Action has also partnered with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to craft model voting-restriction laws for Republican state legislators. A Heritage Action organizer boasted in a video obtained by Mother Jones that the group was behind key provisions of the controversial law recently passed in Georgia.

"Joe Manchin isn't moved by leaders who have spent decades organizing for civil rights," Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., tweeted after Manchin that said his position on the For the People Act had not changed after meeting with civil rights leaders on Tuesday. "Manchin isn't moved by the views of his constituents. Manchin isn't moved by GOP voter suppression bills in 43 states. Because Manchin is only moved by corporate donors and their agenda."

One group that has been a major cheerleader of Manchin's staunch opposition is the aforementioned U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a powerful pro-business group that also receives Koch money and generally supports Republicans.

Manchin's op-ed announcing his opposition echoed the Chamber's talking points in a letter to senators alleging that "partisan" legislation would "undermine" public confidence in democracy, even though Republicans across the country have advanced and enacted overtly partisan bills aimed at restricting ballot access.

"When it comes to this 'bipartisan' argument, I gotta tell you, I don't buy it," Ocasio-Cortez said. "Joe Manchin has voted for bills that have not been bipartisan before. Look at the American Rescue Plan. So this is not just about bipartisanship."

The op-ed came after the Chamber, which has launched an expensive lobbying effort against the bill, resumed donations to Manchin's campaign for the first time since 2012. Reuters described this flow of corporate dollars as a "reward" for Manchin's opposition to numerous Biden administration's initiatives, as well as his stalwart support for the filibuster, which has almost certainly doomed the For the People Act. 

"The timing of Sen. Manchin's announcement is highly suspicious," Kyle Herrig, president of the progressive government watchdog group Accountable.US, said in a statement to Salon. "Not long after the Chamber reopened their corporate checkbook for him, he made his opposition to voting rights known. Now millions of Americans may face significant roadblocks when they try to exercise their constitutional right to vote. Once again the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has found a way to stop any progress on voting rights from progressing on Capitol Hill."

Manchin's office and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce did not respond to questions from Salon.

The Chamber is one of the most powerful trade groups in the country, spending more than $80 million on lobbying last year, second only to the National Association of Realtors. It is the single largest lobbying spender this year, dropping over $17 million to influence policy, nearly twice as much as the pharmaceutical trade group PhRMA. The group has been aggressively lobbying against the For the People Act since 2019, spending more than $129 million on opposing the bill and related issues since it was first introduced in the House, according to lobbying disclosures.

While the U.S. Chamber's corporate members pay for its lobbying, its PAC donations come from the group's executives, staff members and other affiliated individuals. The Chamber's PAC made a contribution to Manchin in the first quarter of this year, its first since 2012. Shortly after, the Chamber issued an alert to all members of the Senate threatening to include "votes related to this bill in our annual How They Voted scorecard" and mentioning some of its specific provisions, including a requirement to disclose big donors and communications with candidates, a plan to strengthen the Federal Election Commission, and public financing of campaigns.

"The Chamber is deeply troubled by efforts at the state and federal level to enact election law changes on a partisan basis," the letter said. "Changes enacted on a partisan basis are the most likely to erode access and security and undermine public confidence and the willingness of the American people to trust and accept future election outcomes."

Manchin echoed that argument in his op-ed, writing that he believes "partisan voting legislation will destroy the already weakening binds of our democracy" and "partisan policymaking won't instill confidence in our democracy — it will destroy it."

Both the Chamber and Manchin have called for lawmakers to advance voting legislation on a "bipartisan" basis, although it's inarguable that one party is seeking to expand voting rights while the other is actively trying to restrict them. Manchin has claimed there is bipartisan support for the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would require states to pre-clear voting changes with the Justice Department. That's technically true: Exactly one Republican senator (Lisa Murkowski of Alaska) has expressed support for the bill. But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell declared on Tuesday that his party would not support the legislation and denied that there was any threat to voting rights.

Manchin, whose ties to the U.S. Chamber date back to at least 2010, when he was West Virginia governor, drew public praise from Chamber president and CEO Suzanne Clark earlier this year for his "principled stand" on preserving the filibuster, which is the most significant roadblock to the voting legislation.

Nick Vaugh, a lobbyist for the Chamber, presented Manchin with a "Spirit of Free Enterprise Award" in 2019, which the group says it gives to lawmakers who have supported its positions at least 70% of the time.

As it happens, Vaugh has been registered to lobby senators on the For the People Act and other issues since 2019, according to federal disclosure forms.

"It's unfortunate Sen. Manchin has bought into the U.S. Chamber's smears against the For The People Act," Herrig told Salon. "And just like the Chamber, he is wrong — there is nothing 'partisan' about protecting the right to vote for all Americans. In carrying the Chamber's water, Sen. Manchin is only inviting further voter suppression."

The Chamber's pressure on senators to oppose the voting rights legislation comes as many of its corporate members have joined forces to oppose Republican voting restrictions in state legislatures. 

Accountable.US has launched a six-figure "Drop the Chamber" campaign challenging corporations like Microsoft, Target and Salesforce to back up their public support of voting rights by cutting ties with the group, accusing it of "siding against millions of Americans who will be subject to these racist voter suppression laws."

"It's on Chamber members that claim to support voting rights to end their relationships and speak out against this assault on Americans' rights to vote," Herrig said, "because anything less makes them complicit."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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