The latest front in the Koch brothers’ perpetual public relations campaign (which recently included a feeble admission that climate change is real) found Charles Koch sitting down with ABC News for an exclusive interview. The conversation with Jonathan Karl that aired last Sunday cast Koch in the unlikely role of benevolent billionaire. The man who built an empire of influence by pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into American politics says he and his brother David want to clean up the political realm.
“The only way to get the money out is to get all the goodies that the government's giving to special interests out, and that's what we're trying to do,” Koch said. Yet Koch neglected to mention that over the past few years his vast political network, including his company, Koch Industries, has opposed a slew of campaign-finance reform bills in Congress.
“[Koch] is speaking from both sides of his mouth on this,” says Common Cause legal director Stephen Spaulding, who has supported a number of the failed reform proposals. “On the one hand, they’re talking about the influence that money can bring to political process,” says Spaulding. “Yet they’re lobbying against these common-sense bills that would give actually allow voters to see if politicians are acting in their best interest or in their donors’ best interests.”
Several of the reforms that the Kochs have lobbied against would have required additional disclosures of political contributions. Citizens United cleared the way for unlimited outside spending on elections. But under federal regulations, all contributions must be publicly disclosed. However, tax-exempt nonprofits that engage in political activity aren’t required to disclose their donors. Those organizations have provided billionaires like the Koch brothers with a loophole that they have exploited.
Since 2010, Democrats on Capitol Hill have backed the Disclose Act, which would close that loophole. The bill would have required all groups that make more than $10,000 in independent campaign expenditures to disclose all contributors of at, or above, that same threshhold. The bill died in the House and Senate on more than one occasion after aggressive lobbying by the Kochs and several of their allies.
Lobbyingdisclosurereportsshow that Koch Industries worked actively to thwart the Disclose Act, characterizing it as “legislation to curtail the ability of citizens to discuss and criticize incumbent politicians in periods close to elections for federal office.” Koch Industries has also opposed other Democratic disclosure bills as well as a 2014 joint resolution that backed a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.
The company has also lobbied for Republican proposals such as the Stop Targeting of Political Beliefs by the IRS Act that would limit the agency’s ability to establish so-called “bright lines” between political and educational activity—something that reformers say is critical to reining in nonprofit entities like the ones funded by the Koch brothers that engage in political activities. That bill failed to gain traction, but the proposal reemerged earlier this year as a budget rider that blocks the IRS from writing new regulations that would define political activity.
The Koch brothers’ anti-disclosure lobbying should come as no surprise, given that they have built a political machine that runs largely on a network of political non-profits that funnel undisclosed contributions from big donors. Says Spaulding: “It goes without saying that people listen when they speak.”