February 7, 2011- The billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch no longer sit outside Washington's political establishment, isolated by their uncompromising conservatism. Instead, they are now at the center of Republican power, a change most evident in the new makeup of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Wichita-based Koch Industries and its employees formed the largest single oil and gas donor to members of the panel, ahead of giants like Exxon Mobil, contributing $279,500 to 22 of the committee's 31 Republicans, and $32,000 to five Democrats.
Nine of the 12 new Republicans on the panel signed a pledge distributed by a Koch-founded advocacy group – Americans for Prosperity – to oppose the Obama administration's proposal to regulate greenhouse gases. Of the six GOP freshman lawmakers on the panel, five benefited from the group's separate advertising and grass-roots activity during the 2010 campaign.
Claiming an electoral mandate, Republicans on the committee have launched an agenda of the sort long backed by the Koch brothers. A top early goal: restricting the reach of the Environmental Protection Agency, which oversees the Kochs' core energy businesses.
The new committee members include a congressman who has hired a former Koch Industries lawyer as his chief of staff. Another, Rep. Morgan Griffith of Virginia, won a long-shot bid to unseat a 14-term moderate Democrat with help from Americans for Prosperity, which marshaled conservative activists in his district. By some estimates, the advocacy group spent more than a quarter-million dollars on negative ads in the campaign. "I'm just thankful that you all helped in so many ways," Griffith told an Americans for Prosperity rally not long after his election.
Perhaps the Kochs' most surprising and important ally on the committee is its new chairman, Rep. Fred Upton. The Republican from Michigan, who was once criticized by conservatives for his middle-of-the-road approach to environmental issues, is now leading the effort to rein in the EPA.
Upton received $20,000 in donations from Koch employees in 2010, making them among his top 10 donors in that cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
In recent months the congressman has made a point of publicly aligning himself with the Koch-backed advocacy group, calling for an end to the "EPA chokehold." Last week the chairman released a draft of a bill that would strip the EPA of its ability to curb carbon emissions. The legislation is in line with the Kochs' long-advocated stance that the federal government should have a minimal role in regulating business. The Kochs' oil refineries and chemical plants stand to pay millions to reduce air pollution under currently proposed EPA regulations.
Koch Industries is the country's second-largest privately run company, a conglomerate of refining, pipeline, chemical and paper businesses. Their products include Lycra and Coolmax fibers, Brawny paper towels and Stainmaster carpets. Last year, Forbes magazine listed the brothers as the nation's fifth-richest people, each worth $21.5 billion.
A spokesman for the famously media-shy family declined to comment. Koch allies say the brothers act out of ideological conviction.
A Washington energy consultant familiar with the Kochs, Javier Ortiz, said the committee agenda reflects the "needs of the American people" and a broad shift in political sentiment.
When the 85 freshman GOP lawmakers marched into the Capitol on Jan. 5 as part of the new Republican House majority, David Koch was there too.
The 70-year-old had an appointment with a staff member of the new speaker, Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio. At the same time, the head of Americans for Prosperity, Tim Phillips, had an appointment with Upton. They used the opportunity to introduce themselves to some of the new legislators and invited them to a welcome party at the Capitol Hill Club, a favorite wine-and-cheese venue for Republican power players in Washington.
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.
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."