In August, 2015, Charles and David Koch gathered their fellow billionaires and multimillionaires at a semi-annual meeting of the Koch network “to save” the country, in the words of Charles Koch.
It was not exactly the same kind of meeting that occurred in July 1776 when the Founding Fathers gathered in Philadelphia to create a nation or at Gettysburg in November 1863 when President Lincoln declared to the nation that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Charles Koch, however, apparently felt it was of comparable significance declaring to the “Super Rich” participants gathered for the meeting, and the Presidential candidates who had been summoned, that they were engaged in “a life or death struggle for our country.”
Charles Koch said that if the Koch network failed to convince a “majority of Americans behind the [Koch] vision, then we’re done for.”
Charles Koch and his brother David Koch are each worth more than $40 billion, according to Forbes magazine. Together, they bring a combined total of more than $80 billion to their crusade “to save” the country.
According to a New York Times article (January 15, 2015), “The political network overseen by the conservative billionaires Charles G. and David H. Koch plans to spend close to $900 million on the 2016 campaign, an unparalleled effort by coordinated outside groups to shape a presidential election that is already on track to be the most expensive in history.”
At the August 2015 meeting, the Koch network backed off some, stating that the $889 million would be spent on issue advocacy, education grants and political activity. Much of the issue advocacy run by groups in recent years, however, has involved campaign-related expenditures.
While no one knows just how much the Koch network will end up spending in the 2016 elections, according to the Times article, “In 2012, the Kochs’ network spent just under $400 million, an astonishing sum at the time. The $889 million spending goal for 2016 would put it on track to spend nearly as much as the campaigns of each party’s presidential nominee.”
The Kochs could easily fund this venture by themselves, but that is not how the Kochs became the sixth and seventh richest individuals in the country, according to Forbes.
A portion of the funds they plan to spend during the 2016 election cycle will come from the Kochs’ own resources. The rest of the funds will come from the billionaires and multimillionaires who help finance the Koch network.
We will not know, however, the sources and how much each gave.
That is because the Kochs operate in secret in our political system. They use nonprofit, tax-exempt groups to hide most of the donors funding their network. (Freedom Partners Action Fund, a Koch network Super PAC which discloses its donors, spent $23.4 million in the 2014 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics).
If the Kochs are successful, their investment in the 2016 election cycle will bring the two brothers extraordinary power and influence over government decisions. Since the Kochs control the spending of these massive funds — or the delivery of the benefits – the power and influence will accrue directly to them, regardless of the other donors supporting the network.
This is a magic trick worthy of the Magic Hall Of Fame.
It is also the overriding campaign finance story of the 2016 election.
Koch Industries is the second largest privately held company in the United States, with annual revenues of $115 billion, according to Forbes. The company has economic interests in oil, natural gas, coal, chemicals, minerals, fertilizer, pulp and paper and commodities trading, among others. The stakes the company has in government policies include climate change, energy, environmental regulation, other government regulations and tax laws, among others.
This “experiment” in “democracy” is unheard of in American history. Two unelected private citizens with huge financial stakes in government actions and decisions are planning to control the spending of an unheard of amount of money in order to obtain the government they want.
The Supreme Court majority had no idea about the political shambles that would result from its 5 to 4 decision in Citizens United (or even worse, the Court majority did). The Court has given the country a new political system increasingly focused on billionaires, millionaires, Super PACs, corporations and nonprofit corporations.
At the core of the Court’s new political system are the three basic elements that resulted in the historic Watergate campaign finance scandals: unlimited contributions, secret money and corporate funds.
These same elements are unfolding in the 2016 elections.
The “Super Rich” are funding, with unlimited contributions, individual-candidate Super PACs that operate as arms of the presidential candidates they support. The Super PACs have one basic purpose: to allow a presidential candidate to circumvent and thereby eviscerate the $2,700 per donor, per election, candidate contribution limit with huge contributions made to the Super PAC supporting the presidential candidate.
If the 2012 presidential election was the first year of the individual-candidate Super PAC, then the 2016 presidential election is the first year they were joined by individual-candidate nonprofit corporations – which are supposed to be “social welfare” organizations.
Eight presidential candidates are associated with these kinds of nonprofit corporations which also have one basic purpose: to allow donors to make unlimited, secret contributions to support the candidate.
Unlimited, secret contributions are the most dangerous kind of influence-buying money in American politics. They provide widespread opportunities for government corruption since they are invisible and the buyers and sellers of government actions cannot be held accountable for corrupt practices.
In the face of this corrupt system, however, citizens are not helpless.
Major campaign finance scandals resulted in effective, major reforms in the 1970s, 1990s and 2000s.
Today, we have systemic corruption in the wake of Citizens United and transactional corruption scandals are bound to follow. Ordinary Americans can fight back and win effective reforms, as they have done successfully in the past.
Fundamental changes to improve the system can be made, even in the face of the Supreme Court’s destructive decision.
A reform agenda can be enacted to counter what is happening today that includes:
- A public financing system for presidential and congressional elections in which citizens choose candidates to receive public funds by providing small contributions that are matched with multiple public funds;
- New campaign finance disclosure requirements to close the gaping loopholes under which the “Super Rich” are injecting hundreds of millions of dollars in secret contributions into our elections;
- New anti-coordination restrictions to shut down individual-candidate Super PACs, and the new individual-candidate nonprofit groups, and to strengthen the coordination restrictions applicable to other outside spending groups; and
- A new, real campaign finance enforcement agency to replace the dysfunctional and failed FEC.
These changes would empower ordinary Americans by making their small contributions more valuable to candidates, dilute the impact of big money, provide an alternative way for candidates to finance their campaigns and reduce dependency on influence-seeking donors.
The changes would also end the use of individual-candidate Super PACs and nonprofits to eviscerate candidate contribution limits, end secret money in our elections and end a system where campaigns and political operatives know they can violate the campaign finance laws with impunity.
This agenda is impossible to enact today.
But campaign finance reform is always impossible to enact – until it is enacted, as it will be again.
Important work lies ahead for concerned citizens and groups to set the stage to strike when the opportunities arise. That work is currently underway in many ways, such as the 21st Century Democracy Agenda created by reform groups.
At his event last August, Charles Koch compared the efforts of the Koch network with the American Revolution, the anti-slavery movement, the women’s suffrage movement and the civil rights movement.
This is an absurd comparison.
The movements described by Koch involved issues of enormous moral justice and social consequence, and sprung from ordinary Americans doing extraordinary things. They did not come from two multibillionaires rallying their fellow billionaires and multi-millionaires “to save” the nation.
The Koch brothers apparently believe it is their calling to determine what is best for more than 300 million of us.
We choose instead to go with Abraham Lincoln who said, “Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”