An important ruling earlier this month appeared to pave the way for independent expenditure campaigns to have to declare their donors. However, the US Chamber of Commerce, one of the biggest groups affected by this, believes they have found a way around it that would keep their donors secret.

But the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which plans to spend more than $50 million during the 2012 election cycle, said this week that it has a simple strategy for getting around the ruling: By changing the focus of its ads to specifically support or oppose candidates, it will not have to disclose any of its donors [...]

The move also means that the chamber is poised to become more directly involved in specific congressional races by explicitly telling people how they should vote. It’s a notable shift in strategy for the nation’s largest business lobby, which has long characterized itself as focusing primarily on policy rather than politics.

“We will have a vigorous, unchanged election program,” chamber President Tom Donohue told reporters Monday, adding that the push for disclosure is “all about intimidation. They want to intimidate people from participating.”

For many nonprofit groups, this shift from “issue advocacy” into direct independent expenditures on behalf of a candidate would affect their tax-exempt status, costing millions of dollars. The US Chamber of Commerce is a 501 (c) (6) tax-exempt organization, a special designation reserved for business coalitions, boards of trade and chambers of commerce. So it’s not quite a nonprofit, and probably doesn’t have the same kind of restrictions on campaign spending. So while this wouldn’t work for, say, Karl Rove’s Crossroads nonprofit, the Chamber of Commerce probably doesn’t lose money from the switch.

The Chamber had engaged in issue advocacy, or electioneering communications, because it was simply easier for them to justify. They’re an apolitical business group and they simply educated the public on business issues, the story goes. But now, to protect their secret donor network, they’re giving up the charade, moving directly into direct campaign spending for or against specific candidates. Nobody really believed the apolitical nonsense anyway, so the Chamber’s “unmasking” may not mean much. As we saw with ALEC, however, putting business groups up against the wall and tying them to extremism can force them out of an organization. If the Chamber names a specific candidate that they support, they then become responsible for everything that candidate says or does. And then you can expect progressive groups to go to individual members of the Chamber, which are still known (even if specific donors for their ads aren’t), and ask if they support this kind of rhetoric or activity. This has had great success in getting consumer-based businesses out of ALEC; just today, Wal-Mart ended their relationship. Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21 alluded to this in reaction to the Chamber’s announcement:

“It unmasks what a complete charade the chamber’s claims have been — that they only run issue ads and don’t engage in campaign activity,” Wertheimer said. “Corporations have been able to say that their money is just going to promote business policy when it’s spent by the chamber. That cover is gone now for these public corporations.”

Still, I doubt that will end the Chamber’s efforts entirely. And they will continue to spend millions on political advertising without disclosing who donated the funds.