Recently, a new meme has been making its way around the conservative blogosphere and has been picked up by those in the mainstream media. Basically, conservatives are trying to push the story that the Koch brothers are not overly influential on the political process and that labor unions spend far more in campaign contribuions and donations to political organizations than the reclusive billionaires. They’ve used data from the Center for Responsive Politics to make their case for them.
Last week, Kimberly Strassel of the Wall Street Journal picked up on the meme and decided to push it out there for public consumption. She chastised Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) for attacking the Koch brothers for their spending and stated that he should go after the real enemy of democracy–the labor unions. She then pointed out, utilizing data from the CRP, that unions have spent greater than $600 million more than Koch Industries over the past 25 years on political campaigns.
Strassel was being obtuse for the purpose of pushing the narrative that union thugs are the real problem in politics and that it is unfair to pick on a couple of rich guys that don’t even spend all that much anyway. The fact is, that all political contributions from labor unions have to be disclosed, even if it goes towards indirect campaigning, like with political action committees (PACs.) Meanwhile, the Kochs have been able to secretly contribute hundreds of millions of dollars by setting up their own SuperPACs, creating shell companies or providing money to other people to then give to a candidate or a PAC supporting that candidate.
The fact is, that the CRP only shows disclosed and direct campaign contributions made by organizations, companies and individuals. On that level, the Kochs only show up as #59 overall for the past 25 years and contributed a total of $4.9 million in the previous election cycle. However, when you take into account all of the ‘dark’ money that the Kochs spent during the 2012 election, that figure balloons to a whopping $412 million. In comparison, the top ten labor unions combined spent a total of $153 million when counting all political contributions.
Jonathan Cohn at the New Republic wrote a piece on Tuesday dedicated to the notion that unions are outspending the Kochs. While he also pointed out that Strassel and other conservatives were obviously discounting the indirect contributions made by the Kochs, and pretending that SuperPACs like Americans for Prosperity were not directly affiliated with the Koch brothers, he made an excellent comparison between unions and the Kochs. Below is the relevant excerpt from his piece:
It’s true that labor unions and their members made far more political contributions than the Koch Brothers and their affiliates did. It’s also a misleading comparison. There are 14.5 million people in the labor movement, according to the latest government statistics. There are exactly two people in the Koch brotherhood—Charles and David Koch—plus another 350 or so self-identified Koch employees who, over that same time period, made direct campaign contributions. Extrapolate from that math, and you’ll see that the donation per Koch Industries affiliate positively dwarfs the donation per union member—by a factor of around 1,000, give or take.But that wasn’t Strassel’s most egregious argument. By focusing on direct contributions to the parties and the candidates, she did what conservatives defending the Koch brothers almost always do. She severely downplayed the primary way the Kochs influence politics—through unregulated, indirect financing of conservative political organizations. According to research by Robert Maguire, a researcher who pieced together the Koch money trail from disparate Internal Revenue Service and Federal Election Commission reports, conservative nonprofit organizations that received large grants from Koch-backed intermediaries spent $170 million during the 2012 election cycle. Unions spent just $24 million.
The comparison is not precise, but it’s good enough to get a sense of scale. Using the same basic math—the Koch-affiliated organizations have about 200 supporters, including the Koch brothers, according to Maguire—that works out to about $850,000 of influence per Koch brother and $1.65 per union member. At that level of donation, it would take about 515,000 union members to have the same influence as just one Koch brother or affiliate.
Basically, labor unions represent millions of workers. Per person, their overall influence is far less than that of the Koch brothers and their affiliates. Making the comparison between unions and the Koch brothers is missing the point of the massive amount of influence that just two men are having on the political process of this country. Do unions donate a lot of money to political campaigns? Yes. But, they are doing so on behalf of millions of American workers. Broken down, the money spent per union member is not all that significant.
However, the Kochs have billions of disposable dollars to do with however they wish. Their preference is to pervert the political landscape in order to benefit them and the ultra-rich. Thankfully, despite Citizen United making it extremely easy for them to flood the airwaves and cyberspace with endless political ads, the electorate rejected the conservative message and Barack Obama was reelected President and Democratic gains were seen in the House and Senate. Nonetheless, they are at it again as Americans for Prosperity has already spent $30 million so far and who knows where the ceiling is. Will the American public fall for the constant barrage of dishonest political ads this time around?