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After their stinging loss during the November 1980 presidential campaign, the billionaire Koch brothers, Charles and David, decide that they need to work to inculcate their brand of hard-right libertarianism into the electorate through indirect means (see 1979-1980). Therefore, they begin spending vast amounts of their personal fortunes on what purport to be independent think tanks and other political or ideological organizations. At the same time, the brothers become political recluses, rarely speaking in public and rarely acknowledging the breadth or the direction of their donations. It is hard to know exactly how much the Kochs spend and where they spend it, though public records give some of the picture. Between 1998 and 2008, Charles Koch’s foundation spends over $48 million on political funding. The Claude R. Lambe Charitable Foundation, controlled by Charles and his wife, spends over $28 million. David Koch’s foundation spends over $120 million. Koch Industries, controlled primarily by Charles, spends over $50 million on lobbying efforts. Their political action committee, KochPAC, donates around $8 million, almost all of it going to Republicans. In 2010, as in other years, Koch Industries leads all other energy companies in political donations. The brothers spend over $2 million of their personal fortunes on political donations, almost all of it going to Republicans. Ari Rabin-Havt of the progressive media watchdog organization Media Matters will say that the Kochs’ effort is unusual in its marshalling of corporate and personal funds: “Their role, in terms of financial commitments, is staggering.” Lee Fang, writing for the liberal blog ThinkProgress (an arm of the Center for American Progress), calls the Kochs “the billionaires behind the hate.” Some believe that the Kochs have either skirted, or outright broken, laws controlling tax-exempt giving. Charitable foundations must conduct exclusively nonpartisan activities that promote the public welfare. But in 2004, a report by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, a watchdog group, describes the Kochs’ foundations as being self-serving, and concludes, “These foundations give money to nonprofit organizations that do research and advocacy on issues that impact the profit margin of Koch Industries.” The Kochs also use their charitable foundations to fund hard-right political organizations that, according to reporter Jane Mayer, “aim to push the country in a libertarian direction,” including: the Institute for Justice, which files lawsuits opposing state and federal regulations; the Institute for Humane Studies, which underwrites libertarian academics; and the Bill of Rights Institute, which promotes a conservative interpretation of the Constitution. David Koch acknowledges that the family exerts tight ideological control. “If we’re going to give a lot of money, we’ll make darn sure they spend it in a way that goes along with our intent,” he tells a reporter. “And if they make a wrong turn and start doing things we don’t agree with, we withdraw funding.” (Mayer 8/30/2010)
The US Supreme Court strikes down part of an Arizona law providing public funding for political campaigns. In the case of Arizona Free Enterprise Club’s Freedom PAC v. Bennett, the Court rules 5-4 that a provision in Arizona law providing additional funds to publicly funded candidates whose opponents use private donations to outspend them is illegal. Some opponents of unfettered outside spending feared that the Court would use the case to put an end to most, if not all, programs that provide public money to candidates; Think Progress’s Ian Millhiser explains: “Candidates will only agree to accept public financing if it won’t prevent them from running a competitive race. If a state offers only a few thousand dollars in public funds to a candidate whose opponent is backed by tens of millions of corporate dollars, then the non-corporate candidate will have no choice but to raise money on their own. To defend against this problem, Arizona developed a two-tiered public financing system. Candidates receive additional funds if their opponent or corporate interest groups overwhelm them with attack ads, and thus candidates who are determined not to be tainted by the corrupting influence of major donors are not left defenseless.” The ruling will not have an impact on the presidential race, since the federal public financing system lacks such a provision, and since it seems unlikely that either President Obama or his Republican challenger Mitt Romney (R-MA) will use public financing in 2012. The case was brought by two organizations, the Institute for Justice and the Goldwater Institute, on behalf of Arizona state candidates who rejected public funds. The groups argued that the provision infringed on those candidates’ freedom of speech by compelling them to spend less money to avoid triggering the additional funds.
Majority, Minority Opinions - Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts agreed: “We hold that Arizona’s matching funds scheme substantially burdens protected political speech without serving a compelling state interest and, therefore, violates the First Amendment.” The matching funds provision “imposes an unprecedented penalty on any candidate who robustly exercises [his] First Amendment right[s],” Roberts adds. If the provision is allowed to stand, “the vigorous exercise of the right to use personal funds to finance campaign speech” leads to “advantages for opponents in the competitive context of electoral politics.” The privately funded candidate, Roberts writes, must “shoulder a special and potentially significant burden” when choosing to exercise his First Amendment right to spend funds on behalf of his candidacy. Justice Elena Kagan dissents, writing that the plaintiffs “are making a novel argument: that Arizona violated their First Amendment rights by disbursing funds to other speakers even though they could have received—but chose to spurn—the same financial assistance. Some people might call that chutzpah.”
Reactions - Attorney Bill Maurer, who represented the Institute for Justice, says the ruling “makes clear that the First Amendment is not an exception to campaign finance laws; it is the rule” (see January 30, 1976 and January 21, 2010). He adds that he hopes the ruling will serve as “a clear reminder to government officials that they may not coerce speakers to limit their own speech.” Millhiser writes: “So public financing laws can technically remain, but Arizona’s attempt to protect publicly financed candidates from a wave of corporate attack ads is absolutely forbidden. Moreover, because few candidates can know in advance whether the will face an onslaught of hostile corporate ads, most candidates will hedge their bets and avoid the risk of public financing.… Without unlimited corporate money in elections, most candidates could afford to take public funds unless their opponent had unusual access to wealth or wealthy donors.” Referring to the 5-4 Citizens United decision (see January 21, 2010), Millhiser continues, “In the post-Citizens United America, however, no one is safe from corporate America’s nearly bottomless pool of potential campaign expenditures.” Nick Nyhart of Public Campaign, an organization opposed to the unrestricted influence of outside donors, says, “The five-vote Big Money majority on the court has spoken again in favor of wealthy special interests.” Fred Wertheimer of the campaign finance group Democracy 21 calls the ruling “another seriously misguided campaign finance decision,” but adds “it does not cast any doubt on the continued viability or constitutionality of a number of other existing public financing systems that do not include ‘trigger funds’ or similar provisions.” Common Cause President Bob Edgar says, “This is not the death knell of public financing.” (Vogel 6/27/2011; Millhiser 6/27/2011)
Plaintiffs Financed by Wealthy Conservative Interests - The next day, Think Progress’s Lee Fang will reveal that the two groups who filed the lawsuit, the Institute for Justice and the Goldwater Institute, are financed by wealthy conservative interests. The Institute for Justice, a group dedicated to bringing cases to court in order to deregulate private corporations and to increase the participation of wealthy corporate interests in elections, was created with “seed money” from oil billionaire Charles Koch (see 1977-Present, 1979-1980, 1981-2010, 1984 and After, May 6, 2006, April 15, 2009, December 6, 2009, November 2009, July 3-4, 2010, August 28, 2010, August 30, 2010, and September 24, 2010). The Walton Family Foundation, a foundation run by the billionaire family of Arkansas retailer Sam Walton (the founder of Wal-Mart), has donated $1.64 million to the group. The Foundation has written that the Citizens United decision and the Arizona case are two top priorities for the Institute. The Goldwater Institute, one of Arizona’s most prominent conservative think tanks, is focused on rolling back health care reform. The Institute is funded by several foundations, including the Walton and the Charles Koch Foundations. Fang notes that much of the funding for both groups remains undisclosed. (Fang 6/28/2011)
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