Billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch are well-known for pumping tens of millions of dollars into so-called “dark money” nonprofits — groups that actively promote or criticize candidates for office but are not required to reveal their donors.
Not so well known is the duo’s role in underwriting and sculpting the legal landscape that led to the court decisions that made possible these and other groups such as super PACs.
The Center for Public Integrity investigated an array of organizations that have participated in legal challenges dating back 40 years that have resulted in a system allowing unlimited sums to be pumped into modern elections. It’s a system that both Republicans and Democrats now fully rely upon ahead of 2018 midterm elections that could reaffirm — or torpedo — President Donald Trump’s congressional majority.
Throughout that history, Koch-backed groups have stood out as reliable, stalwart opponents of regulation of money in politics. While far from the only players in the legal battle, the Kochs are certainly among the most recognizable — and significant.
“They’re not the only group in the game,” Larry Noble, general counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, said of the Kochs. “But I think what you’ll see, it’s a deep well with a long-term commitment.”
The Center for Public Integrity identified the sources of $293 million received by groups that lodged formal arguments in key campaign finance deregulation cases. It also identified $64 million in funding for groups that defended campaign finance regulations, including significant cash from liberal billionaire and Koch foil George Soros.
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Funds underwriting the legal campaigns to shape how money influences politics come from individuals, corporations, unions, foundations and family trusts of all sizes. Some have come from surprising sources, according to tax records, internal documents and other records reviewed by the Center for Public Integrity.
Not all the money identified went toward campaign finance fights, and much of the funding is simply untraceable, since most of these groups keep their donors secret.
But the funding that is known offers key clues about the players behind the greatest unraveling of campaign finance regulation in U.S. history.
‘Buckley’ and Cato
One must travel back in time more than 40 years to understand how today’s motley collection of campaign money laws came to be — and how limits on political fundraising and spending have unraveled along the way.
It began with the Supreme Court’s Buckley v. Valeo decision of 1976, a reaction to Watergate reforms passed by Congress. The court upheld limits on contributions to political campaigns, but in a critical part of the ruling which would play a major role years later, allowed for unlimited spending on campaigns.