No, the Kochs Aren't Behind the Government Shutdown

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Oct. 9 2013 11:51 AM

No, the Kochs Aren't Behind the Government Shutdown

First, a disclosure. From April 2006 through December 2008, I was a writer and editor at Reason magazine, whose mothership foundation takes money from David Koch. This hasn't stopped me from occasionally finding myself at war with the Koch PR machine, but in general, I think I'm more inclined to see an in-public Koch activist network than to see a behind-the-scenes Koch conspiracy.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel, a former Slate politics reporter, is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

All right! With that out of the way: Jacob Fischler obtains a letter from Koch PR to senators, informing them that the famous billionaires did not actually want a government shutdown. "There was false information presented about Koch on the Senate floor by Senate Majority Leader Reid, who claimed yesterday that Koch was behind the shutdown of the federal government in an effort to defund the Affordable Care Act," writes Philip Ellender in the letter. "Koch has not taken a position on the legislative tactic of tying the continuing resolution to defunding Obamacare nor have we lobbied on legislative provisions defunding Obamacare."

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Where did Reid's claim come from? Like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Reid has leaned on a weekend New York Times story, published on A1, that claimed the Kochs played a major role in the plotting of the Obamacare defunding-or-bust campaign.

Groups like Tea Party Patriots, Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks are all immersed in the fight, as is Club for Growth, a business-backed nonprofit organization. Some, like Generation Opportunity and Young Americans for Liberty, both aimed at young adults, are upstarts. Heritage Action is new, too, founded in 2010 to advance the policy prescriptions of its sister group, the Heritage Foundation.
The billionaire Koch brothers, Charles and David, have been deeply involved with financing the overall effort. A group linked to the Kochs, Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, disbursed more than $200 million last year to nonprofit organizations involved in the fight. Included was $5 million to Generation Opportunity, which created a buzz last month with an Internet advertisement showing a menacing Uncle Sam figure popping up between a woman’s legs during a gynecological exam.

That second paragraph is misleading, and could have been more insightful if it got deeper into the numbers—or what "the fight" and "the overall effort" are, exactly. If "the fight" is sowing public anger about Obamacare, then, yes, the Koch organizations have obviously spent millions of dollars on that, as the Times says. If it's the shutdown, the Koch groups have really not been banging the war drums.

Look at the organizations closest to the Kochs. Americans for Prosperity, chaired by David Koch, has been absent from the shutdown fight, from rallies in support of it. Instead, it's advocating for entitlement cuts—not Obamacare—to come out of any debt limit deal. Generation Opportunity, which took $5 million from the Koch trade association Freedom Partners, is not tying "Creepy Uncle Sam" to a demand for defunding. That campaign is all about getting young people to opt out of the exchanges.

So the line that the Kochs gave "$200 million last year to nonprofit organizations involved in the fight" does a lot of work. According to Politico, which broke the Freedom Partners story, two of the groups advocating for a shutdown (Heritage Action and Tea Party Patriots) got "less than $1 million each." (The Kochs would never fund FreedomWorks, which only exists because Dick Armey wanted to split from the Koch-created Citizens for a Sound Economy.) Combined, they got less than the Chamber of Commerce. And they got far, far less than a series of groups that were pumped up to buy ads in the 2012 elections.

You could argue that the Kochs, like the chamber and a lot of other donors, created a Frankenstein's monster. They might not want a shutdown, they might think it's destructive to their larger cause of cutting entitlements, but they spent the money to elect a disobedient Republican Congress. Oops!

But you can't really argue that the Kochs are "deeply involved" in the shutdown strategy. Unless, you know, it sounds really good to your base to blame the villains they're familiar with for every crisis. Then go ahead, I guess.

David Weigel, a former Slate politics reporter, is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

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