With the fate of President Biden’s domestic agenda in the balance, an armada of right-wing dark-money groups aligned with the Koch political network is mobilizing to sink Biden’s $3.5-trillion Build Back Better plan and deal a devastating blow to his presidency.
The Koch network is one of the most extensive and well-funded political and policy operations in the country, having pledged to spend more than a billion dollars in the past four election cycles. The web of nonprofit groups funded by or affiliated with the Koch network — dubbed the “Kochtopus” by critics — broadly promotes an anti-government, libertarian-style vision for American life. In most cases, the donors who bankroll the network’s groups remain anonymous, playing a central role in the spike in dark-money spending in American politics.
Koch-backed groups fiercely opposed Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act and his cap-and-trade climate bill, successfully weakening the former and helping to kill the latter. The network’s groups have different mandates and focuses, including foreign policy, health care, and energy. At times, their libertarian leanings have found them making common cause with progressive groups — including by pushing to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and to criticize government-mandated bans on racial-justice curriculums. But with a Democrat back in the White House, the Koch network of late has largely unified behind a push to stop Biden‘s agenda.
Koch-aligned groups are together spending millions of dollars on advertising, targeting moderate Democratic lawmakers, and pushing their influence in the halls of Congress to whittle down or outright kill the sweeping policy package, which would represent the largest expansion of the social safety net in the past 50 years and the biggest step toward addressing climate change in U.S. history.
“Fighting the reconciliation bill is a top priority for Charles Koch’s surrogates,” says Connor Gibson, founder of the corporate watchdog organization Grassrootbeer Investigations, who has spent years tracking Koch influence in the United States. “This is a viable threat for his network, and we can see that all the tentacles of the Kochtopus are out in full force trying to stop it from passing.”
This lobbying blitz comes at a critical moment for Biden’s agenda. Democratic leaders in Congress have pushed for a two-track strategy to pass a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill paired with the much larger $3.5 trillion Build Back Better Act, which contains many of the signature policies Biden campaigned on as a presidential candidate. Those policies include hundreds of billions of new spending on universal prekindergarten, major expansions to child-care and home health-care programs, free community college, and the biggest-ever investments in renewable energies, electric cars, and other climate-focused policies. But for the larger bill to pass, it’ll need to get through a closely divided House and get unanimous support from the 50 Senate Democrats, including centrists such as Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.
While the Koch network refused to support Donald Trump in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, the dozens of groups who receive funding or support from the network spent heavily to elect Republican governors, House members, and U.S. senators. AFP Action, the Super PAC affiliate of the Koch network’s flagship group Americans for Prosperity, spent $47 million last year, all of it to elect Republicans and defeat Democrats in high-profile races. The PAC tied to the Libre Initiative, a Koch affiliate focused on Hispanic Americans, spent $1.3 million in other key races across the country, often to great effect.
After the Democratic Party took control of the House and Senate, albeit by slim majorities, the Koch network set its sights on the pillars of Biden’s policy agenda. Just days after the two Georgia Senate runoff victories, Koch operatives held a private conference call to strategize about how to kill a top Democratic policy priority, the For the People Act, the most ambitious election-reform bill since Watergate. As the New Yorker reported, an official with Stand Together, a Koch-backed nonprofit, conceded that the bill’s provision requiring greater transparency of dark money was so popular that the Koch network and its allies couldn’t mount a public-pressure campaign to stop — instead, they would have to play the inside game, mounting a lobbying blitz targeting members of Congress if they wanted to stop the bill. Now, the Koch network has an even more sweeping piece of legislation in its sights, the centerpiece of Biden’s domestic policy agenda, the Build Back Better Act.
The tip of the spear for the Koch network in this pressure campaign is Americans for Prosperity. Led by longtime Koch operative Tim Phillips, AFP is spending seven figures on TV and digital ads opposing not only Biden’s $3.5 trillion Build Back Better Act but also the bipartisan infrastructure deal awaiting a vote in the House of Representatives.
AFP has adopted another tactic aimed at making Biden’s domestic agenda unpopular — hitching Biden’s plans with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a progressive leader, while claiming that the Build Back Better package is the biggest spending bill in American history. One AFP ad says Biden’s policy package is “the last thing we need to recover from this pandemic,” adding, “Tell Congress to stop the Biden-Sanders spending spree.” The ads appear on Facebook, Google platforms (including YouTube), and on TV stations across the country.
The Koch-backed LIBRE Initiative is running ads against the reconciliation package in Texas, Florida, and Arizona “to inform Latinos about the negative effects of overspending and overtaxing.” The group’s president, Daniel Garza, explains in a release that he intends to “mobilize our grassroots army of volunteers and activists to hold our elected officials accountable.”
Yet another group with long-standing Koch network ties, the 60 Plus Association, has launched a multimillion-dollar ad blitz focused on the prescription-drug-reform policies in the Build Back Better Act. Founded in 1992, 60 Plus was originally conceived as the conservative movement’s answer to the AARP; over the years, it’s taken millions from Koch nonprofit groups and been used to attack Obamacare and Democratic candidates for office. Indeed, almost two decades ago, 60 Plus lobbied to eliminate Medicare’s ability to negotiate with drugmakers during a previous battle over drug prices.
In its new ad blitz, 60 Plus claims that the provisions included in Biden’s plan to allow for greater drug-price negotiation in Medicare would cause benefits for Medicare recipients to be slashed and make medication harder to obtain for doctors. Like AFP, 60 Plus describes the Biden plan as an “out-of-control spending spree.” However, PolitiFact slapped this claim by 60 Plus with a “False” rating, citing health care experts who said giving the government the ability to negotiate with drug companies shouldn’t lead to reduced access to key drugs for Medicare patients.
All told, these and more than 100 other similar groups, many of them linked to Koch, are mobilizing to fight the spending bill. “As your committee begins marking up the $3.5 trillion reckless tax-and-spend reconciliation proposal,” this large right-wing coalition said in a letter earlier this month to top congressional Democrats, “we write in opposition to any effort to raise taxes on American families and businesses.”
The threat comes not only in the form of corporate tax increases — although the financial impact could be substantial, given that Trump-era tax cuts potentially saved the Koch brothers up to $1.4 billion, according to estimates from the group Americans for Tax Fairness; many of the Koch-backed groups fighting Biden’s spending package are also deeply concerned about the ambitious climate provisions the package contains.
Proposed policies include expanding tax credits for electric vehicles, as well as provisions pushing utilities to use clean energy instead of fossil fuels. Add up all the climate impacts, and this could reduce America’s carbon footprint by nearly 1 gigaton worth of greenhouse gas emissions, the research firm Rhodium Group estimates. This would represent some of the most significant action ever taken on climate change in the U.S.
But what’s good for the planet is potentially terrible for Koch’s bottom line. The Koch Industries subsidiary Flint Hills Resources, for instance, operates the largest oil refinery in Minnesota, capable of processing more than 300,000 barrels per day of crude oil, predominantly from the Canadian tar sands. The refinery is fed by a Koch-owned pipeline network spanning more than 500 miles.
“Charles Koch has so many different layers of interest in fossil fuel and petrochemical production that the Biden administration’s bill could cause the costs of his businesses to increase, and therefore his profits would drop,” Gibson explains.
Fighting climate action has for this reason long been a top policy priority for Koch’s network — and it’s animating dark-money opposition to the current $3.5 trillion spending package.
The Texas Public Policy Foundation calls the spending package’s climate provisions “incredibly expensive and harmful anti-energy policies that will cripple our economy, increase our dependence on foreign oil, and increase cost of living, especially for the poorest Americans.” The Austin-based think tank has received at least $3.6 million from foundations linked to Koch since 1998, the watchdog group Desmog calculates.
One of the signatories of the coalition letter opposing the plan is Myron Ebell, a Koch-linked energy pundit and professional climate-change skeptic. As recently as 2016, Ebell said that while he now acknowledges climate change is real, he doesn’t think it’s a “rapid or a serious problem.”
The Koch crew is also stoking fears of inflation and skyrocketing prices for consumers if the bill passes. “Prices are rising everywhere, from the gas pump to the grocery store,” AFP recently tweeted.
Opponents of Biden’s Covid-19 relief measures and his domestic policy agenda have raised fears of inflation as a result of so much government spending. But earlier this month, a dozen Nobel Prize-winning economists published an open letter that argued inflation wasn’t nearly as big of a concern. More important, they wrote, was “reversing years of disinvestment in public goods and addressing the country’s long-term needs — including building toward sustainable and inclusive growth and facilitating our clean energy transition.”
The dark-money groups mobilizing against the plan don’t seem to care. The country might have problems — including soaring inequality and a collapsing climate — but, for the Koch empire, that’s just the cost of doing business.