Charles and David Koch raised eyebrows in D.C. last week with an aggressive push back of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid after the Nevada Democrat delivered the kind of bare-knuckle attack on the billionaire brothers that has become commonplace by top Democrats in the Citizens United era.
“All Americans should be deeply concerned when officials use their elected office, particularly the office of the Senate Majority Leader, to stifle First Amendment rights of free speech and association,” Philip Ellender, a top official at Koch Industries, told Breitbart News. Ellender also released a sharply-worded letter taking Reid to task.
Sources close to the issue say the brush back was mostly motivated by sincere outrage. “Harry Reid, on the Senate floor – the majority leader – going after private citizens?” asks a top Koch ally incredulously, comparing it to the Internal Revenue Services’ targeting of conservative activists.
But it also comes as the Kochs and their constellation of funded groups are preparing to launch a major lobbying blitz against forthcoming IRS rules that would sharply curtail the types of political activities that nonprofit 501(c)(4) organizations can engage in.
The Koch push is interesting because the company and its affiliates plan to strongly make the case for anonymity, tracing its role in American politics and highlighting past instances in which it was used for good.
Politicians like President Obama often espouse the virtues of “transparency” while working to protect key information from public view. But it’s far rarer for principle of transparency itself to be challenged.
Progressive crusader Louis Brandeis said “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants” in a 1914 anti-banker book, and it remains the under-girding sentiment behind the disclosure of information about political donations and the like.
Critics have worried certain types of information can easily be misused, prompting confusion and sowing distrust.
The Kochs are preparing to make the case that anonymity has been a crucial tool in American political life, protecting individuals from persecution, including threats and violence.
“The whole reason behind the capacity for individuals to give anonymously goes back to a Supreme Court decision, NAACP vs. State of Alabama, back in the civil rights era. People wanted to release the names of donors who are giving to NAACP. People didn’t want that released – because they could have their houses burned down, or bricks through their windows, or death threats, many of the same things we’re experiencing,” the Koch ally says.
In the 1958 decision, Justice John Harlan struck down the state of Alabama’s demand for the NAACP’s membership list, writing “It is hardly a novel perception that compelled disclosure of affiliation with groups engaged in advocacy may constitute as effective a restraint on freedom of association.”
Another major instance of anonymity was the Federalist Papers, written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay under pen names, which were a major factor in the adoption of the Constitution and remain among the most celebrated works of political theory by American authors.
The draft IRS rules are open for comment until Feb. 27, and critics have begun organizing against the rules.
A new website, ProtectC4Speech.com, features a video address from top conservative lawyer Cleta Mitchell articulating her criticisms of the new rules.
A list of talking points against the rules obtained by Breitbart News says the new rules would prohibit nonprofit groups from even the most basic activities related to politics, such as educating voters on issues or about voter registration information.
The rules also prohibit the groups from communicating about a candidate’s stance on an issue within 60 days of a general election or even commenting on presidential nominees, the talking points say.
If the IRS does finalize the regulations, the issue is likely to end up in court. The Supreme Court tackled some of the same legal issues in Citizens United, upholding free speech over the government’s ability to regulate.