Kochs’ Influence

Another week in the news for the billionaire brothers

Last week, Politico’s Kenneth Vogel reported that “faced with an avalanche of bad publicity after years of funding conservative causes in relative anonymity, the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers, Charles and David, are fighting back,” including by hiring “a team of PR pros … to quietly engage reporters to try to shape their Koch coverage.”

Let’s take a look at the shape of this week’s Koch coverage.

It was “The Kochs fight back” last week, per Vogel’s Politico headline (a story which he retold Tuesday on The Brian Lehrer Show). This week, the Washington Post reports that Common Cause—which the paper describes as a “40-year-old good government group … more likely to hold a forum on filibuster reform” than to lead a boisterous demonstration—is “suddenly uncommonly forceful in fighting Koch industries.” More from the Post:

[S]uddenly Common Cause is manning the barricades, leading a rowdy campaign by liberal groups decrying the outsized role of big money in U.S. politics.

The main targets of the campaign are billionaires Charles and David Koch of the Koch Industries energy-and-paper conglomerate, who have spent tens of millions of dollars over the years on conservative issues and candidates. Liberal activists led by Common Cause staged noisy protests last month outside a private political gathering held by the brothers in Rancho Mirage, Calif.

The head of Common Cause, “a mild-mannered former Democratic congressman and Methodist minister,” explains how the group will “continue to use the Koch brothers as the poster children for a group of people who want to move our democracy toward a plutocracy.”

Readers are told that “conservative critics … call the campaign shrill and unfair,” and the president of the Koch-founded 501(c)(4) group, Americans for Prosperity, (David Koch is chairman) “called the efforts a ‘fundraising ploy’ and said Common Cause is hurting its mission by demonizing opponents.”

Here is how the Post promoted the piece on Twitter: “Koch brothers spur once quiet group to action.” Probably not the way the Kochs’ PR pros would have tweeted it.

The Post piece ran as part of the paper’s coverage of “The Influence Industry,” but it was a piece from the Los Angeles Times on Monday that did the hard work this week of unraveling and explaining what the Koch brothers’ “influence” actually looks like (and probably wins the Least Favorite Press Clip of the Week award, as far as the Koch crisis management team is concerned). The Times’s report bore the eye-catching headline, “Koch brothers now at heart of GOP power,” and detailed how, as the sub-hed has it, “the billionaire brothers’ influence is most visible in the makeup of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, where members have vowed to undo restrictions on greenhouse gases.”

It is an illuminating read. In part:

The billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch no longer sit outside Washington’s political establishment, isolated by their uncompromising conservatism. Instead, they are now at the center of Republican power, a change most evident in the new makeup of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Wichita-based Koch Industries and its employees formed the largest single oil and gas donor to members of the panel, ahead of giants like Exxon Mobil, contributing $279,500 to 22 of the committee’s 31 Republicans, and $32,000 to five Democrats.

Nine of the 12 new Republicans on the panel signed a pledge distributed by a Koch-founded advocacy group, Americans for Prosperity, to oppose the Obama administration’s proposal to regulate greenhouse gases. Of the six GOP freshman lawmakers on the panel, five benefited from the group’s separate advertising and grass-roots activity during the 2010 campaign …

… Perhaps the Kochs’ most surprising and important ally on the committee is its new chairman, Rep. Fred Upton. The Republican from Michigan, who was once criticized by conservatives for his middle-of-the-road approach to environmental issues, is now leading the effort to rein in the EPA.

Upton received $20,000 in donations from Koch employees in 2010, making them among his top 10 donors in that cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

In recent months the congressman has made a point of publicly aligning himself with the Koch-backed advocacy group, calling for an end to the “EPA chokehold.”

There’s the “influence industry” for you. And there’s the sort of follow-the-money reporting we’d like to see more often. The Kochs are indeed influential, but they are not alone.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.