March 20, 2011- When Mike Pompeo needed funding for a Wichita aerospace company, one of the places he and his partners went for help was Koch Industries, a hometown firm that is among the world’s largest privately held corporations.
Last year, Pompeo turned to Koch for help again — this time to support his successful campaign for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Pompeo received $80,000 in donations from Koch and its employees, making him the top recipient of Koch-related money in the 2010 elections.
The contributions have put the House freshman in the middle of a broad partisan battle over the role of corporate money in U.S. politics, which has gained urgency in the aftermath of last year’s Supreme Court ruling allowing unfettered spending on elections. President Obama and other Democrats have repeatedly criticized the decision as giving unfair advantage to business interests, a claim that Republicans dispute.
Often mentioned in the debate over corporate political influence is Koch Industries, a conglomerate with holdings in oil, paper and other interests owned by brothers Charles and David Koch, whose combined net worth is estimated at $44 billion. The longtime conservatives have told supporters that they plan to spend tens of millions of dollars on the 2012 elections, and they have come under attack from Democrats for supporting union-busting Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R).
Now liberal groups have begun turning their ire toward Pompeo, who hired a former Koch Industries lawyer as his chief of staff and proposed legislation in his first weeks in office that could benefit many of Koch’s business interests.
The measures include amendments approved in the House budget bill to eliminate funding for two major Obama administration programs: a database cataloguing consumer complaints about unsafe products and an Environmental Protection Agency registry of greenhouse-gas polluters. Both have been listed as top legislative priorities for Koch Industries, which has spent more than $37 million on Washington lobbying since 2008, according to disclosure records.
“It’s the same old story — a member of Congress carrying water for his biggest campaign contributor,” said Mary Boyle of Common Cause, a liberal-leaning group that has spearheaded protests against the Kochs. “I don’t know how you make the argument to your constituents that it’s in their interests to defund the EPA or a consumer database.”
But Pompeo said in an interview this month that his legislative proposals have no connection to Koch or its owners. Instead, he said, his actions in the House reflect a long-held belief in limited government widely shared by his constituents in Kansas’s 4th District.
“I have run two small businesses in Kansas, and I have seen how government can crush entrepreneurism,” said Pompeo. “That’s why I ran for Congress. It just so happens that there are a lot of people in south central Kansas who agree with me on that.”
Burdett Loomis, a University of Kansas political science professor, said that “almost any Republican legislator from Wichita is going to be very, very solicitous of the Kochs. They’re major constituents, major employers and major money.”
But, he said, Pompeo’s ties seem to stand out: “I’m sure he would vigorously dispute this, but it’s hard not to characterize him as the congressman from Koch.”