Billionaire David Koch's prime political organization, Americans for Prosperity (AFP), having failed in its $125 million quest to oust President Barack Obama, is now aiming at a slightly less sophisticated political target: victims of Hurricane Sandy.
Hurricane Sandy was the second most costly in American history, leaving 100 lives lost, over $50 billion in devastation and tens of thousands of damaged or destroyed homes. Legislative efforts to help those who survived Hurricane Sandy's wrath will reach a major stumbling block.
Earlier this week, AFP, which is chaired by Koch and believed to be financed by several other plutocrats from the New York City region, released a letter warning members of Congress not to vote for the proposed federal aid package for victims of the storm that swept New Jersey, New York City and much of the surrounding area in October. An announcement on the group's website says that the vote next week for the Sandy aid package will be a "key vote" — meaning senators who support sending money for reconstruction could face an avalanche of attack ads in their next election. Already, opposition to the bill is growing, although it passed one procedural hurdle last night.
There is some legitimate criticism with aspects of the legislation, including the fact that some of the money will go to non-Sandy related reconstruction efforts in disaster areas. For AFP, however, the whole bill must die and victims of the storm deserve no help from the government.
Koch's top deputy in New Jersey, a surly gentleman named Steve Lonegan, who heads the local AFP state chapter, called the aid package a "disgrace." "This is not a federal government responsibility," Lonegan told reporters. "We need to suck it up and be responsible for taking care of ourselves."
It seems particularly cruel that the Koch political machine would use its vast network of paid activists and professional operatives to kill this bill. For one thing, this is David Koch's community. From his Upper East Sideapartment, Koch lives only a subway ride away from the devastation in Red Hook. Notably, Koch's group gave away free gasoline during the election in a wide-scale anti-Obama stunt, yet had nothing to give to the victims of the storm. Now, Koch, one of the richest men in the world, is actually trying to take something away from them.
There's another wrinkle to this political assault on the aid request that makes it even more heartless. (No, it's not the rather arbitrary decision to target this piece of federal funding over others. Recently, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta identified $74 billion in unnecessary military spending, but AFP has not demanded that the government immediately axe these funds.)
The other tragedy of Koch's decision to target Sandy aid is that his company is one reason we will increasingly face extreme weather events like hurricanes, flash floods, droughts and fierce storms. The Koch brothers, David and Charles, sit atop one of the world's largest privately held conglomerates. Koch Industries is a sprawling company with interests in commodity speculation, timber, oil refining, ethanol production, chemicals, pipelines, consumer products, and fertilizer, among others. The Koch empire, by one estimate, has an annual carbon footprint of 100 million tons.
Not only does Koch's business contribute to climate change through massive carbon emissions, as Greenpeace reported, Koch is the largest financier of climate denial political organizations and media groups. (As an aside, unlike AFP, Greenpeace ignored partisan politics and sent many of its workers to Queens to assist with relief efforts.)
Steve Lonegan, the AFP New Jersey staffer now crusading against federal support to his disaster-stricken state, led the effort to persuade Governor Chris Christie to reject a New England regional system to reduce carbon emissions. In a self-discrediting opinion column for The Times of Trenton last year, Lonegan mocked the overwhelming scientific data that projects global warming will lead to increased hurricanes (emphasis added):
It's disturbing enough to realize the leading supporters of this reckless, irresponsible [cap and trade] scheme not only advance their argument under the banner of wild-eyed claims about increased rates for hurricanes and tornadoes due to global warming, for which there is no valid scientific proof — such increased rates have occurred regularly over the centuries.
As I've written, Koch's political machine has largely used "conservative" and populist political efforts to advance their bottom line. Koch Industries makes a fortune by avoiding having to repay society for contributing millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Before AFP fought efforts to regulate carbon emissions, the group (then known as Citizens for a Sound Economy) blasted efforts to curb acid rain and asthma-causing dust from factories, using much of the same rhetoric and hard-edge tactics. It lost those battles; but in recent years, it has won major policy debates, especially on climate change.
In this instance, there's no payout to Koch Industries. Instead, it appears the fight over the Sandy relief money is yet another proxy battle with President Obama and his party. If the bill is significantly sliced apart, or even blocked, Democrats will have a difficult time finding the funds to pay for other programs over the course of next year.
Regardless of the politics though, it's just kind of sad that a man worth $31 billion would spend his money this way.