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Koch brothers now at heart of GOP power

The billionaire brothers' influence is most visible in the makeup of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, where members have vowed to undo restrictions on greenhouse gases.

February 06, 2011|By Tom Hamburger, Kathleen Hennessey and Neela Banerjee, Los Angeles Times

The Kochs provided initial funding for the libertarian Cato Institute and are key donors to the Federalist Society, among other conservative organizations.

In recent years, they began drawing conservative media, business and political leaders to semiannual meetings in the West to discuss protection of the free-market ethos and to raise funds for their causes. The most recent was in Rancho Mirage a week ago.

Frustrated with the state of conservatism in Washington during the George W. Bush era, the Kochs began to shift the discussions at recent meetings from fundraising for think tanks to more specific electoral strategy.

Longtime ties

At the center of the new ground-level strategy is a beefed-up role for Americans for Prosperity. Along with other well-funded conservative groups, the group was very active in the congressional midterm election — in many cases taking on roles often performed by national and state parties.

Americans for Prosperity is the political arm of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, which David Koch co-founded in the 1980s under the name Citizens for a Sound Economy. He is chairman of the board of the foundation, which says it aims to educate citizens on "a return of the federal government to its constitutional limits."

Americans for Prosperity says it spent $40 million in the 2010 election cycle, organized rallies and phone banks, and canvassed door to door in nearly 100 races across the country. The organization found scores of energetic activists in the "tea party" movement to carry its message.

Throughout this effort, Americans for Prosperity kept a strong emphasis on promoting its views on climate change and energy regulation. In 2008, it began circulating a pledge asking politicians to denounce a Democratic-led effort to compel oil refineries and utilities to clean up emissions of greenhouse gases through a so-called cap-and-trade system. The organization said it amounted to a hidden tax increase.

The cap-and-trade legislation passed the House but died in the Senate. Americans for Prosperity began working to defeat House Democrats who voted for the bill, showing the power of its new activist base.

The advocacy group does not disclose spending in individual races. But it said it facilitated tens of thousands of phone calls and organized dozens of events in recent congressional campaigns. Among the beneficiaries, besides Griffith, were newly elected Reps. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) and Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.). All three now sit on the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Gardner and Kinzinger declined to comment on their relationship with Americans for Prosperity and the Koch brothers, although a spokeswoman for Gardner emphasized that the group's work was "totally independent" of his campaign, in line with federal election rules.

Other committee members have deeper ties to the Kochs.

Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), who represents Koch Industries' home district, launched an aerospace company with investment help from a Koch subsidiary. He sold the company last year. His chief of staff is Mark Chenoweth, a former Koch Industries lawyer.

Phil Kerpen, vice president for policy at Americans for Prosperity, said the organization was pleased with the committee's new members.

"From a policy standpoint, I think those are pretty good choices," he said, mentioning Griffith in particular.

Griffith has questioned the EPA and the science behind its proposed regulation of global warming. "We have to be sure the EPA is reined in," he said recently.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that the EPA had the power to regulate greenhouse gases as air pollutants under the Clean Air Act. Pompeo, Griffith and others want to strip the EPA of that authority.

Until recently, Upton would have been an unlikely champion of that view.

In 2009, he told a Michigan newspaper: "Climate change is a serious problem that necessitates serious solutions." Rush Limbaugh ridiculed Upton for his sponsorship of an energy-saving bill. Tea party groups opposed his bid for the committee chairmanship.

But as chairman, Upton said that EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson would have to attend so many hearings before his committee that she would need her own parking space on Capitol Hill. In daily e-mail blasts, he hammered at the EPA's "job-killing" regulations.

His bluntest rhetoric against the EPA came in late December, in a Wall Street Journal commentary he wrote with Phillips of Americans for Prosperity.

The EPA's regulation of greenhouse gas emissions, they wrote, "represents an unconstitutional power grab that will kill millions of jobs — unless Congress steps in."

In an e-mail statement, Upton denied that his position on climate change had shifted, and he explained his work with conservative activists. "Meeting with and listening to individuals and organizations that will be affected by the laws and regulations this committee oversees is one of our fundamental responsibilities," he said.

The change on the committee is "like night and day," said Jeremy Symons, senior vice president of the National Wildlife Federation, a nonpartisan organization that lobbied the committee to stem greenhouse gas emissions.

"In the past the committee majority viewed the Clean Air Act as an effective way to protect the public," Symons said. "Now the committee treats the Clean Air Act and the EPA as if they are the enemy. Voters didn't ask for this pro-polluter agenda, but the Koch brothers spent their money well and their presence can be felt."

Republicans wave off such comments, saying the focus on the Koch brothers is just the left's latest conspiracy theory.

"[Former Chairman] Henry Waxman stacked the committee with liberal environmentalists," said Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), who now chairs the economy and environment subcommittee. "Now we are moving things back to the center."

tom.hamburger@latimes.com

kathleen.hennessey@latimes.com

neela.banerjee@latimes.com

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