MSNBC morning host Joe Scarborough had a revealing exchange with Sen. Chuck Schumer this week on Schumer's party boss Harry Reid making the Koch brothers the center of the Democrats' 2014 election message. As Newsbusters transcribed:
SCHUMER: Anyway, let me just say this. You know, when David Koch does ads that say cut government and you cut NIH, far more about cancer research is hurt than the good he does which he should get credit for giving to charity. Private charity cannot deal with the major problems we face as good and noble as...
SCHUMER: Let me say this. NIH is not inefficient... the bottom line is very simple. The commercials he runs are not part of the American mainstream, are not what should happen. No two people should have such a huge influence on our politics. That's not First Amendment.
Setting aside the fact that the Supreme Court - the legal body that actually has the authority to rule if something "is First Amendment" or not - has ruled that these kinds of campaign spending are a valid expression of free speech, it's pretty hard to make the case that the Kochs are anti-NIH. David Koch was a long-time member of the NIH's National Cancer Institute advisory board, and lamented the budget cuts that were being made to the NIH.
Let's unpack Sen. Schumer's Koch-centric worldview a little further. Schumer may say that Koch's NIH advocacy doesn't matter because he's spending money across the country to try to get Republicans elected, and getting Republicans elected directly leads to NIH budget cuts. The major problem we'd point out here is that money doesn't buy elections. It's counterintuitive, but it's true: to truly overwhelm an election, you need a ton of money, and very, very few electoral outcomes in either 2010, 2012, or the coming 2014 elections will involve enough money to actually make a difference.
The real value when it comes to money in politics is twofold: it's unproven, but perhaps campaign donations would sway a candidate closer to the donor's preferred policies; and lobbying money actually does make a difference when it comes to swaying policy and legislation. But if this were true in the specific case of the Kochs, then NIH advocate David Koch would be able to use his hefty campaign contributions to sway the Republican politicos he donates to to adopt his pro-NIH stance. Perhaps his public lobbying isn't forceful enough for Sen. Schumer, but there's little doubt that NIH cuts are something that David Koch finds unwise.
It's up in the air how much money the Kochs give to Republican candidates, but what's not in doubt is the amount they give to philanthropic causes. Just one of them - David Koch - has given over $629 million to good causes, including the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York Presbyterian Hospital, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Ballet at the Lincoln Center.
The easiest way to track what the Kochs do politcally is to look at Koch Industries political spending. They've contributed $21.3 million to candidates and PACs since 1990. They've spent a lot more on lobbying, but that's not what Sen. Schumer is complaining about here. But direct contributions from Koch Industries is not the only way the Kochs influence elections. They are major funders of various political PACs that don't have to disclose their donors - organizations like Americans For Prosperity, typically referred to on the left as the Kochs' main political arm.
Americans for Prosperity spent $36.7 million in the 2011-2012 election cycle, with $12.6 million of that going to politcal advertisements. If we assume that 100% of AFP's funding is from the Kochs - spoiler, it's not - the Kochs would have to spend at 2012 election cycle levels for more than 30 years before they match just David Koch's philanthropy to various causes.
For all this, Sen. Schumer says that the Kochs' political advocacy morally outweighs their charitable contributions. If two libertarianish conservative brothers whose political donations are outweighed by their charitable donations more than ten-to-one can't skate by Chuck Schumer's moral compass, then what chance to the rest of us rubes have? Must the middle-class American who gives $100 to her local Republican running for re-election turn around and give more than $1000 to cancer research in order to morally balance out her heinous Republicanism?
It's a famous and perhaps overused adage that conservatives think liberals are wrong, but liberals think conservatives are evil. It's hard not to see that at work when Sen. Schumer declares that the Kochs' philanthropy is more than morally outweighed by their much smaller political contributions.