Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

The Koch 300: Rise of an Empire

Over the weekend, the Koch brothers' conservative political network of some 300 donors announced that it would raise and spend almost $900 million in the 2016 election cycle, much of which of course would come through corporate donations. That's more than double the then-record $407 million that it spent during the 2012 elections.

As the Washington Post reports:

"The figure comes close to the $1 billion that each of the two major parties’ presidential nominees are expected to spend in 2016, and it cements the (Koch) network’s standing as one of the country’s most potent political forces. With its resources and capabilities — including a national field operation and cutting-edge technology — it is challenging the primacy of the official parties. In the 2012 elections, the Republican National Committee spent $404 million, while the Democratic National Committee shelled out $319 million."

I'm sure it's nothing to worry about. I'm just as certain as you are that the $900 million donated by some of the richest people in America will be invested in politicians who champion the cause of the disappearing middle class and the increasingly stressed working class, and who want to see ordinary Americans treated fairly. (Admittedly, we won't know that for absolutely positively sure, since most of the money will be raised anonymously through non-profit shell agencies. But surely we can safely assume that.)

I'm equally sure that conservative leaders such as Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz won't be tempted to craft their 2016 political messaging and policies to appeal to the interests of those 300 or so potential deep-pocket donors, especially when those interests conflict with the interests of the 320,090,557 other Americans. In fact, I'm sure that's exactly what Walker, Rubio, Paul and Cruz told those donors when they met this weekend behind closed doors at a Koch-sponsored conference in Palm Beach, California.

Again, you and I weren't invited, but surely those presidential contenders reminded their gracious hosts that in a democracy like our own, all American citizens have an equal voice and an equal vote in their government, and that the viewpoints of a housewife in Hahira or a factory worker in Columbus must be given weight equal to their own.  That's the American way. (U.S. Sen. David Perdue of Georgia was also in attendance to thank the Koch donors for supporting his own 2014 campaign.)

We should also acknowledge that this outburst of laudable, entirely public-spirited civic involvement was made possible by the landmark Citizens United ruling, which together with other recent rulings opened the door to unrestricted, uncontrolled and undisclosed campaign spending. I'm sure that the five justices in the Supreme Court majority in Citizens United had no idea that the Koch gathering was happening, let alone that it came almost five years to the day from that ruling's announcement.  I'm also sure they have seen no grounds to second-guess their finding in that decision and in other rulings, especially the part in which they explained that unlimited contributions would not produce corruption or even the appearance of corruption.

In the most recent of those rulings, McCutcheon v. FEC (2014), Chief Justice John Roberts laid the logic out plain and simple:

"We have said that government regulation may not target the general gratitude a candidate may feel toward those who support him or his allies, or the political access such support may afford. 'Ingratiation and access ... are not corruption' (Citizens United v Federal Election Commission, 2010). They embody a central feature of democracy, that constituents support candidates who share their beliefs and interests, and candidates who are elected can be expected to be responsive to those concerns."

So even if $900 million buys an awful lot of "ingratiation and access", that's a good thing. And if the candidates elected with the help of that money turn out to be very "responsive" to the concerns of those who contributed it, that too is good, as Roberts points out. It's just the system working as the Founders intended it.

I'm sure we all agree with that.

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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.