Given the troves of campaign finance records available to the public, the rants of Sens. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., against billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch and the Senate Majority PAC’s $3 million “Slam the Koch Brothers” campaign seem unlikely to influence public opinion. After all, Democrats accepted campaign donations from Koch Industries, owned by Charles and David, for years. The company gave $110,000 of its total $2.2 million donations to the party in 2012. Over the last 20 years, Koch donated $3,400 each to 298 Democratic congressional candidates.
Koch Industries spent $10 million last year lobbying Congress, giving the company a big say in how legislation gets drafted. It lobbied Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, and Rep. Henry Waxman’s, D-Calif., on their proposed carbon pricing bill. The legislation would’ve required polluters to pay for their carbon emissions. We can’t tell what the effect of these efforts was, because the lobbying process is not transparent, but the bill ultimately died. If Democrats were committed to opposing Koch Industries, they’d close their office doors to its lobbyists.
The Democrats' rhetoric also implies that Democratic politicians are not part of the wealthy class, but 21 of the 50 richest members of Congress are Democrats. The average net worth of Senate Democrats is $13 million, about 189 times greater than the current median household net worth of $69,000. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is worth $24 million, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is worth $5 million, and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., is worth $1 million. Wealth matters.
Schumer argues that the system is rigged. He blames wealthy donors, but Democrats could be a lot more aggressive on pushing campaign finance reform. They proposed the narrowly focused Disclose Act in 2010, which would have required groups airing election ads to disclose where got their money. The president has also made some statements about changing the system, but no comprehensive plan lies on the horizon. The words are there, but not the will. It took 30 years to pass the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002, so don’t expect any major reforms in this decade.
The Kochs threaten the common good with their disproportionate influence over politics. But for voters, understanding the complex world of financing politics is hard enough. Grasping the role the Kochs play is even harder, especially given that 52 percent of the public has never heard of them.
Democrats would be better off focusing their attacks on Republican candidates and reminding voters that GOP incumbents stymied the Emergency Unemployment Compensation Act, shoved an $880 million cut to food stamps into the 2014 farm bill, and engineered a government shutdown that lopped half a percentage point from gross domestic product and killed 120,000 private sector jobs.
However, if they were to do this, then they’d have to explain why they dropped the ball on extending unemployment insurance, approved a bill that reduced the average per meal food stamps benefit to $1.40 and backed off raising the minimum wage.