The Koch Brothers' America

In the clandestine and money-soaked politics of the billionaire brothers from Kansas, we are either witnessing the demise of our democracy, or the best reason to rise up and reinvent it.

Detail from Barrels of Money, oil on canvas painting by Victor Dubreuil, c. 1897

If more Americans have heard of David Koch this week than last week it is because of a prank pulled off by Ian Murphy, a blogger from Buffalo. As the political stand-off between Wisconsin’s new Republican Governor Scott Walker and the state’s Democrats escalated, Murphy put in a call to the Governor pretending to be David Koch. With Murphy’s tape recorder running, Walker took the call and did nothing to resist the faux-Koch’s off-color banter and praise for Walker in what Walker clearly affirmed would be an uncompromising battle to the end to crush Wisconsin Democrats and public employee unions.

Murphy figured, correctly, that Walker would take a call from Koch because Koch Industries’ political action committee (Koch Industries is the Wichita, Kansas-based company David and his brother Charles control) was the second largest contributor to Walker’s 2010 campaign.

The fake phone call may turn out to be a mere footnote in the battle for Wisconsin, but it’s also a reminder of what we already know about the Koch Brothers and how pervasively they are influencing American governance. Empowered by the Supreme Court’s infamous, January 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (in which the court lifted all restrictions on the corporate funding of political speech) the Kochs have already demonstrated just how vulnerable the American political system is to being bought by people and industries who have a vested interest in what government does and doesn’t do. It is a truly stunning phenomenon that already has the markings of a non-violent coup d’état. If that seems like an exaggeration, read on.

Thus far, at least, the signature profile on the Koch Brothers and their ambitions is Jane Mayer’s August 30, 2010 profile for The New Yorker. As Mayer recounts, the Koch brothers are fabulously wealthy oil men whose company also owns Dixie Cups, Georgia-Pacific lumber and controls the manufacture of other consumer products including Lycra. Their combined fortune of $35 billion, she reports, makes them second only to Bill Gates and Warren Buffett among the wealthiest of Americans.

Fred C. Koch

Fred Koch, Image via Wikipedia

The Koch brothers, and their father Fred Koch, who died in 1967, are fierce ideologues. Fred was an original member of the John Birch Society in 1958 and, today, his sons David and Charles are devoted libertarians. Because Ronald Reagan was not sufficiently right-leaning for the Koch brothers, Charles encouraged David to run as a Vice Presidential nominee on the Libertarian Party ticket in 1980.  Then, as Mayer notes, the Libertarian agenda unabashedly called for doing away with social security, minimum wage laws, gun control, personal and corporate income taxes, and abolishing regulatory agencies such as the Securities and Exchange Commission. In that election, which Reagan of course won, the Libertarian Party candidates received 1% of the vote.

The ominous point of Mayer’s 2010 article, Covert Operations, is just how the Kochs, in the space of thirty years, have gone from being on the margins of American politics to steering the country in their direction. They’ve done this by trying to fly under the radar—systematically pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into conservative think tanks, like the Cato Institute, and directly into political campaigns, including Scott Walker’s.

In her in-depth reporting on the Kochs, Mayer looks at all facets of the Kochs operations, including their corporate citizenship.

The Clinton administration Justice Department brought two lawsuits against Koch Industries, alleging it had released millions of gallons of oil into U.S. lakes and rivers. The company paid a record fine to settle these pollution charges. In 1999, the company was found guilty of negligence and malice in the deaths of two Texas teen-agers who died an a butane pipeline explosion. Also during the Clinton years, the company was charged with discharging tons of the carcinogen benzene from a refinery in Texas.  In this case, the Koch petroleum group pled guilty to one criminal count for covering up the environmental violations and paid a $20 million fine.

“The Kochs are on a whole different level,” the founder of the Center for Public Integrity, Charles Lewis, told Mayer. “There’s no one else who has spent this much money. The sheer dimension of it is what sets them apart. They have a pattern of lawbreaking, political manipulation, and obfuscation. I’ve been in Washington since Watergate, and I’ve never seen anything like it. They are the Standard Oil of our times.”

Since Mayer’s article appeared, the Tea Party-infused Republicans have regained control of the House of Representatives. Recently, the Los Angeles Times took a close look at how the Kochs are using their money and their lobbying infrastructure to influence the new Congress.

In a February 6th article entitled Koch Brothers now at Heart of GOP PowerL.A. Times reporters Tom Hamburger, Kathleen Hennessey and Neela Banerjee, take at look at the Koch Brothers brazen efforts to buy the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Not only had the company’s PAC contributed over $300,000 to 27 of the committee’s members, they found, but the Koch-founded advocacy group Americans for Prosperity had already persuaded nine of the 12 new Republicans on the committee to sign a pledge opposing the regulation of greenhouse gases by the government.

Of course, when there’s this kind of money involved—to pay off “resident scholars,” consultants and spin-meisters—birds of a feather flock together. One of the Koch’s pet causes (they’re oil men, after all) has been to try to debunk the science on global climate change, and thereby head off regulation and a shift in energy policy that might diminish the value of their businesses. The Cato Institute, which the brothers founded and have sunk millions of dollars into,  has been especially aggressive in trying to discredit efforts to combat global warming.

Jane Mayer at the 2008 Texas Book Festival, Au...

Jane Mayer, Image via Wikipedia

“Even though the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently issued a report concluding that the evidence for global warming is unequivocal,” Mayer writes, “more Americans are convinced than at any time since 1997 that scientists have exaggerated the seriousness of global warming. The Kochs promote this statistic on their company’s Web site but do not mention the role their funding has played in fostering such doubt.”

Not to minimize the brothers’ role in thwarting policies that have planet-wide ramifications, but their most cunning and successful strategy has been in nurturing and co-opting the Tea Party movement that energized the Republican base in 2010. Much of Mayer’s article is devoted to how the Kochs have used Americans for Prosperity to fund and manipulate the Tea Party movement.

When Mayer was interviewed by National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” host Terri Gross last August, Gross asked her to talk about a July 4th Tea Party summit in Austin, Texas, that was funded through the Koch’s Americans for Prosperity Foundation. The event was advertised to Tea Party activists, Mayer reported, “as a populist uprising against vested corporate power” with one ad literally stating: “Today, the voices of average Americans are being drowned out by lobbyists and special interests.”

At the time, Mayer seemed to be the only journalist in America much interested in pointing out how the angry Tea Party activists were being cleverly steered toward supporting the Kochs’ libertarian aims.

“It’s interesting,” she told Gross, “they (the Kochs) were involved almost from the very start of the Tea Party Movement. They put up websites that helped organize rallies, they paid for buses that took people to the rallies, they provided various kinds of political infrastructure that has made the movement possible, and fanned the insurrection in various ways. But the other thing that is very interesting to me is that they’ve tried to channel the very legitimate and genuine anger that’s out there in the country about economic problems and push it toward their own agenda.”

To which she added: “They’d rather hide behind groups that do their work for them. I have a quote [in the article] from someone who says they use rednecks to do their dirty work for them, and that was someone who worked for them.”

When Mayer talked to the Tea Party activists at the Austin event, she said she found lots of talk about conspiracy theories, but all the focus was on the left. No one was talking about the Koch brothers’ role in funding their movement.

The triumph of this manipulation is much more obvious today than it was last summer, when Mayer wrote her New Yorker story. The Tea Party movement not only succeeded in helping the Republicans regain control of the House of Representatives, but it is clearly the dominating force in setting the legislative agenda.

In a Washington Post column last week, E.J. Dionne, Jr., bluntly announced that “the Tea Party is winning” even though its prescriptions for America seem bizarrely removed from the problems that the country actually faces.

Wrote Dionne: “Thanks to the Tea Party, we are now told that all our problems will be solved by cutting government programs. Thus the House Republicans’ budget bill passed Saturday. They foresee nirvana if we simply reduce our spending on Head Start, Pell grants for college access, teen pregnancy prevention, clean-water programs, K-12 education and a host of other areas.

“Does anyone really think that cutting such programs will create jobs or help Americans get ahead? But give the Tea Party guys credit: They have seized the political and media agenda and made budget cutting as fashionable as Justin Bieber was five minutes ago.

“More striking is the Tea Party’s influence on Washington’s political elite, which looks down at the more extreme men and women of the right when they appear on Fox News but ends up carrying their water.”

The cuts to “clean-water programs” that Dionne cites goes to the proposed gutting of the Environmental Protection Agency, the bane of the Kochs’ polluting industries. But what’s even more striking are the cuts for the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and other entities that are supposed to regulate Wall Street. You know, Wall Street, as in the completely unhinged casino that nearly demolished the world’s economy in 2008, and sent the U.S. economy into a severe recession that cost millions of Americans their jobs.

The Republican/Tea Party solution to this problem is less regulation–as if over-regulation was the cause for this economy-draining debacle. It’s utterly crazy, though completely in-sync with the Koch Brothers vision of the role of government.

The Republican budget and the agenda behind it is, for all intents and purposes, an echo of David Koch’s failed Libertarian campaign of thirty years ago, when he and his running mate got a mere 1% of the vote. That’s how dramatically things have changed. As E.J. Dionne points out, there’s a powerful and nutty disconnect between the problems we face and the answers the right-wing noise machine have presented to us as solutions.

It’s tempting to say that the Obama Administration’s fecklessness and dismal lack of leadership is primarily responsible for this sad state of American politics. It’s tempting because there’s a lot of truth to it.

But the insurrection fueled by the Koch Brothers’ money—and a Supreme Court that blithely considers money a form of speech—is a much more sinister force. Left unchecked, it will result in a nation that is meaner, greedier, and more shamelessly exploitative of people and the environment than we ever thought possible.

–Tim Connor

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