While progressive grassroots activists rallied Democrats and some moderate Republicans to vote no on President Trump’s and Speaker Ryan’s American Health Care Act (AHCA) last week, a shadowy network of political advocacy groups headed by Charles and David Koch likely dealt the bill its death blow.
The fatal if little-noticed punch to AHCA came in the Koch network’s announcement that it was creating a new fund exclusively to support 2018 Congressional candidates who voted against the AHCA.
The Koch threat was potent. Early in 2015, the Koch brothers’ political organization, Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, announced plans to spend $889 million in the 2016 elections - a staggering sum by any measure and a notable increase from the $290 million that the Koch groups spent in the 2014 mid-terms. According to CNN, the Koch network plans to spend up to 400 million in the 2018 electoral cycle.
Most of this spending has taken the form of “independent expenditures” by nonprofit corporations that don’t disclose their donors. The Koch brothers supply some of the money, and raise more from their hidden friends. Prior to the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United, such corporate expenditures were prohibited in federal elections.
In Citizens United, a 5-4 majority of the Court struck down restrictions on corporate independent expenditures. Its dubious reasoning was that, unlike contributions directly to candidates that the Court admits can corrupt, “independent expenditures … do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” And rather than buttress that assertion with facts, the Court just narrowed its definition of “corruption.”
In its 2003 McConnell decision, the Court recognized that the ability of the wealthy to buy access and influence with officeholders is a form of corruption that undermines democracy. But in Citizens United, the Court reversed itself, proclaiming that the “appearance of influence or access … will not cause the electorate to lose faith in our democracy.”
The Citizens United court’s claims that independent expenditures can’t corrupt and that the purchase of political influence by wealthy interests won’t cause the public to lose faith in democracy struck me as absurd in 2010 - and may strike President Trump as absurd today. The president campaigned on promises to repeal Obamacare and drain the swamp of wealthy special interest politics in Washington. Now the swamp has drowned Trump’s Obamacare repeal bill.
It’s worth noting that Speaker Ryan and the president also had some big money supporters in the AHCA fight. The Hill reported late last week that the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Ryan, ended its support of Republican Rep. David Young’s 2018 reelection campaign over Young’s opposition to the AHCA. The super PAC reportedly spent nearly $2 million supporting Young in 2016 and already had an office and staff in the congressman’s district supporting his 2018 campaign—an office that’s now being closed.
Regardless of what one thinks of Obamacare and the AHCA, the repeal/replace battle illustrates the fundamental flaw in the reasoning behind Citizens United. The fact that big money political investors like the Koch network nonprofits and the super PAC supporting Speaker Ryan deploy their special interest fortunes through independent expenditures, rather than through contributions directly to officeholders, makes little difference to the special interests and the officeholders. Just as political contributions can be used to reward and punish and corrupt politicians, so too can independent expenditures. The Citizens United majority’s assertion that the “independence” of an expenditure somehow scrubs it of corruptive potential just doesn’t make sense. It’s time the Court revisits and corrects its error.
Office: Common Cause National
Issues: Money in Politics