Bernie Sanders’ War on the Kochs

Socialist senator attacks company with 60,000 employees

Bernie Sanders / AP
• September 10, 2013 4:09 pm


A leftwing senator will use his official position to promote a documentary criticizing libertarian philanthropists Charles and David Koch, a move some describe as an attempt to intimidate the politically active billionaires.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.), a self-proclaimed socialist, will host a screening of the film Citizen Koch next week in the Dirksen Senate Office Building.

The screening will follow an event examining what Sanders’ office dubs "unlimited, unregulated campaign spending by corporations and wealthy individuals."

Corporations cannot directly give money to campaigns and there are strict limits on individual contributions to federal campaigns.

Citizen Koch, made by left-wing filmmakers Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, focuses on the involvement of the conservative activist group Americans for Prosperity (AFP) in promoting budget reforms in Wisconsin that were vilified by labor unions nationwide.

The filmmakers claimed the Kochs helped to orchestrate the reforms, which were proposed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker, and helped Walker withstand a recall effort through AFP and other groups that they have supported.

Some reviewers have criticized the film for factual one-sidedness, saying, in one instance, "there is remarkably little fact-checking on display."

The Kochs, who donate millions to charitable causes as well as conservative and libertarian groups each year, have become focal points of liberal conspiracy theories and frequent targets of attacks on the role of money in the political process.

Koch Industries, the corporate conglomerate owned by Charles and David, ranks 61st on the Center for Responsive Politics’ list of the largest political donors since 1989. The company’s PAC was responsible for less than 0.4% of Walker’s 2010 campaign haul.

Some say Sanders’ promotion of Citizen Koch lends an official air to attacks on private citizens.

Tom Fitton, president of the watchdog group Judicial Watch, called the event "disturbing."

"It is obviously designed to be intimidating," Fitton said, and is a product of "the continued personalization of the public policy debate."

"The issue is [the Kochs] as opposed to the public policy debate generally," Fitton said, suggesting less of a principled stance on corporate speech than a message that, "if you participate on the wrong side, you’ll be attacked."

Koch Industries declined to comment on Sanders’ event but the company has criticized similar attacks on its owners as inaccurate and politically motivated.

Sanders is also using his Citizen Koch event to promote his proposed constitutional amendment, which would restrict the ability of private corporations to speak about major public policy issues.

His office did not respond to a request for comment.

Legal experts have warned that attempts to strip corporations of constitutional rights, as Sanders’ amendment would do, could open the door to gross violations of generally accepted constitutional protections, such as guarantees of due process.

The amendment would not apply to labor unions, which almost uniformly support Democrats. Labor unions comprise the bulk of Sanders’ institutional campaign donors.