Column: Koch Is It: The Pursuit of Money and Power

You can’t escape the Koch brothers. They’re everywhere. Underwriting efforts to eliminate Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid. Trying to get rid of aid to education, the Environmental Protection Agency and minimum-wage laws. They’re the brunt of late-night monologues, dramatic TV series and comedy film. They’re even supporting Iowa candidates.

On a recent Sunday, billionaires Charles and David Koch and their well-oiled political organization, Americans for Prosperity, were the focus of a spread in my newspaper, The Des Moines Register, for setting down long-term roots in Iowa. That same day, I happened to reach the third episode of the first season of HBO’s The Newsroom, in which a fictitious TV network’s owner is fixing to stop an outspoken anchor from undermining the Koch brothers on air.

“I got where I am by knowing who to fear,” she tells the show’s producer, “and the Koch brothers are not fooling around.” By that she means they will pull advertising and their newly elected surrogates in Congress will sit on committees that wield power over the network.

In other words, with one Koch hatchet, down comes the hope of fair elections and a free press — and perhaps the future employment of journalists with integrity.

It was the wrong day to see that episode.

Even as I sat down to write this, two emails involving the Koch brothers popped up, unprompted. One promotes an Americans for Prosperity summit in August in Dallas. The other, from the left-leaning, grassroots MoveOn.org, is a call to arms by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, to prevent America’s descent into an oligarchy.

Can a pair of businessmen brothers really be that powerful and dangerous? The short answer is yes, but only if we let them by closing our eyes to their agenda and who benefits from it. For all their lofty-sounding calls for liberty, freedom of expression and prosperity, ordinary people won’t.

There have always been wealthy people wanting to skew public policy toward their financial and corporate interests — to minimize the taxes they must pay, the environmental and labor protections they must abide by and now the health care benefits they must provide workers.

But what has changed is that they are now free to spend limitless amounts flooding the airwaves and hosting political events without identifying their objectives or individual donors. Americans are still learning the rules of this new game, which came from the 2010 Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United.

The Newsroom depicts a couple of fictitious Tea Party leaders being interviewed before the 2010 midterm elections that ushered many into Congress. They call their movement grassroots, with no central control, while faulting President Obama and Congress for being beholden to special interests.

“What little funding we have comes from private citizens who mail in $5, $10, $1, whatever they can spare,” declares one of them. It falls to anchor Will McAvoy to enlighten them that the Koch brothers, the second-largest private company in America, are bankrolling their activities.

“The Koch brothers’ personal wealth of $50 billion (now $80 billion, according to Bernie Sanders) is exceeded only by Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, and they could buy and sell George Soros 10 times over,” declares the anchor. He wonders, rhetorically, if that constitutes “average Americans whose voices are being drowned out by special interests.” He even informs the Tea Partiers that the Defending the American Dream summit they attended over the July 4 weekend in Texas was a Koch brothers-funded event.

Incidentally, that email I mentioned getting from Americans for Prosperity promotes its Defending the American Dream summit in Texas in August, featuring Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence.

Before the 2012 presidential election, the Koch brothers and Americans for Prosperity spent a record amount of money to defeat Obama. In California, the Koch-affiliated American Future Fund spent millions to oppose organized labor and support Proposition 32, a ban on paycheck deductions for political ends. The unions spent more — $36.2 million — to successfully kill the initiative.

In 2010, the brothers also supported California’s unsuccessful Proposition 23, which would have suspended the state’s climate change law. In Iowa, Americans for Prosperity has even gotten involved in city council elections and a county bond issue. Now it’s running ads for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Joni Ernst against Democrat Bruce Braley.

Americans for Prosperity plans to spend $300 million on campaigns around the country this year. MoveOn and Sanders warn of more income inequality and global warming if they get their way. The good news is that for all their expenditures, the Kochs’ campaigns so far have had mixed results.

But the challenge for those of us who care about protecting democracy from being sold to the highest bidder, and believe that freedom comes with responsibilities to the planet, the poor and the general public, is to make sure voters understand the self-serving agendas behind the claims.

Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register.