Christmas came early for the less than a quarter of 1 percent of Americans who donate to political campaigns or committees. In a rare display of inter-party harmony, Republicans and Democrats agreed to a provision, slipped into the Senate’s omnibus spending bill, that increases the amount individuals can give to the party campaign committees each year by a whopping 800 percent—from $97,400 to $776,000.
Pretty brazen, considering that poll after poll shows that the vast majority of Americans want Congress to rein in campaign spending.
But the public counts for less as record sums of private money are being raised and spent—not only by campaigns and parties, but—thanks to the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United—by super PACs and “dark money” groups that take advantage of loopholes allowing certain spenders to keep their donors secret so voters will never know exactly who (or what) is buying our elections. What we do know is that elected officials—from local judges and state legislators to governors and members of Congress—are more beholden than ever to powerful moneyed interests.
In our documentary film Citizen Koch, we followed the money trail, starting with secretive political fundraisers sponsored by petrochemical billionaires Charles and David Koch at resorts in Aspen and Palm Springs. That trail became a cash superhighway as it reached the Wisconsin statehouse in early 2011, where newly elected Gov. Scott Walker introduced Act 10—legislation that effectively eliminated collective bargaining for tens of thousands of state employees. That action ignited protests that rocked Wisconsin and spurred a recall—only the second recall of a governor in U.S. history.
Outspending his opposition by more than five to one, and buoyed by an additional $22.6 million from outside groups, Walker not only survived the recall, but gained national prominence and is now widely considered a contender for the 2016 presidential race. As Wisconsin’s public-sector unions saw the decimation of their membership rolls, their coffers, and their political influence, Walker’s star rose.
Walker’s successful attack on unions has endeared him to dark-money interests like Americans for Prosperity (AFP), founded and bankrolled by the Kochs. AFP admitted spending more than $10 million to back him in 2011 and 2012. Nationally, AFP announced it would spend at least an additional $125 million in this past election cycle, but the actual amounts that AFP spends, and the identities of its donors, are hidden.
AFP’s agenda, however, is less obscured. With Wisconsin’s public-sector unions on the ropes, a newly formed state group is pushing for legislation that will cripple unions in the private sector as well—in effect finishing the job that Walker began. That group is led by Lorri Pickens, a former AFP national director of state operations. Two years ago in Michigan, she oversaw AFP operations to help the Republican-controlled legislature pass sweeping anti-union laws. The Koch-backed group bused protesters to Lansing as the bill was debated, ran ads, and even gave anti-union Tea Partiers cards for free gasoline to get them to lobby their elected representatives. AFP boasts that it was “instrumental in the passage of Michigan’s [so-called] right-to-work law.”
Why would politicians and their billionaire backers expend so much political capital (and actual capital) attacking unions when unions in America represent a small fraction of the workforce—around 11 percent? Are they being driven by a philosophical and ideological hatred of collectivists or is it just a crass political calculation? Maybe it’s because unions spend millions on elections. In the 2012 election cycle, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and Service Employees International Union spent a combined $41 million—$5 million more than AFP. And they spent largely on Democrats, who have historically supported legislation that favored unions and the interests of ordinary Americans over super-wealthy individuals and corporations.
“Many Republicans have been concerned about the amount unions are spending,” former FEC Chairman Trevor Potter, a Republican, explained to us—noting that Citizens United lifted limits on union spending as well as corporate spending.
Karl Rove all but laid out the strategy on national television when he explained how reducing union membership directly impacts elections: “In 2009, the unionized work force made up 12.3 percent of all the workers in America,” he said on Fox News, while tens of thousands of anti-Walker protesters occupied the Wisconsin Capitol. “[Unions] lost 612,000 union members in 2010 alone. Now, think about it. Every one of those 612,000 people had literally perhaps several hundred dollars-worth of union dues going into the political coffers of their union to spend on politics. So… if 500,000 people leave the labor union movement [every year] then pretty soon, you start having crimp in the political budgets of these unions. It has a direct effect on the presidential election.”
This calculus may be why in 2012, Freedom Partners—a group that Politico dubbed the Kochs’ secret bank—directed $1 million to the National Right to Work Committee (NWRC). And why Republican legislators and governors, buoyed by Walker’s success in kneecapping public-sector unions, are intent on eliminating all unions, public- and private-sector alike. Backed by big money like AFP and other groups in the Koch political funding network, and relying on pre-fab “right to work” legislation authored by the NRWC and the Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council, they have introduced or will soon introduce union-busting legislation in key battleground states: Ohio, Colorado, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Missouri, and Pennsylvania, as well as Wisconsin.
We may never know the full amount that the Kochs or other outside spenders donate to advance anti-union legislation. We can be more sure that as the unions’ main source of funding—their working members and the dues they pay—are depleted, Democrats throughout Wisconsin and the rest of the country will increasingly turn to corporations and billionaires for campaign cash. And be in their debt.