When Marc Short became Donald Trump’s director of legislative affairs in early January, he wasn’t the first Koch ally to join the incoming presidential administration. The real estate tycoon’s vice president, Mike Pence, is a longtime Koch favorite. Kellyanne Conway, whose firm contracted with the Koch brothers’ political nonprofit, Americans for Prosperity, ran the Trump campaign in its final months and is now counselor to the president. Mike Pompeo, who represented the Kansas congressional district where Koch Industries is headquartered (KS-04, which had a special election on Tuesday to fill the seat) and received more Koch-linked campaign cash than any other candidate in 2010, was Trump’s nominee to lead the CIA. Scores of Koch-linked conservatives were embedded throughout his transition team.
But with Short, who ran the “central bank” of Charles and David Koch’s vast political empire for several years, the Kochs have a major ally leading the team that is the president’s “primary liaison to Congress,” according to the White House website. Short, along with chief of staff Reince Priebus, deputy chief of staff Rick Dearborn and Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney—about whom Americans for Prosperity is “thrilled”—flooded the Hill in failed negotiations over the GOP’s horrible Obamacare replacement plan.
Short was Mike Pence’s chief of staff when Pence was a congressman. In 2012, as Pence prepared to leave Washington to govern Indiana, Short became president and director of the Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, a trade association functioning as the central conduit through which the Koch brothers and their wealthy, conservative friends fund the numerous political groups in the Koch network that spend hundreds of millions of dollars on politics each election cycle. In 2015, the last year Short was president, Freedom Partners took in nearly $140 million.
Too many Kochs in the kitchen?
On March 22, Short announced some appointments in his office, and out of these eight new hires, four appear to have ties to the Kochs. After Short’s botched efforts at passing the disastrous American Health Care Act (AHCA), it’s unclear whether the enlarged staff will help his cause, but clearly he thinks more Koch allies is a good thing.
Andy Koenig worked for Freedom Partners for the past four years and was promoted to vice president for policy last September. After leaving the organization in February, he is now “special assistant to the president and policy special assistant.” Koenig has plenty of ideas for how to reign in government spending, cut regulations and approach federal infrastructure projects, which he laid out as an op-ed contributor to several publications.
Bethany Scully, now “special assistant to the president and Senate and House special assistant,” worked for three years as a project manager for Koch Companies Public Sector, the lobbying arm of Koch Industries. She moved over to Freedom Partners in 2014, when Short was president, where she was deputy director for member relations for two years before being hired by GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte (NH) in mid-2016.
While I was unable to confirm the identity of Cat Curry, now executive assistant to Short, it’s quite likely she is the same Catherine Curry who worked as an external relations manager for the Freedom Partners Chamber beginning in 2014, when Short was president, according to her now unavailable LinkedIn profile and her University of Georgia alumni page. This same person worked at Koch Companies Public Sector in 2013.
Mary Elizabeth Taylor, the new deputy director of nominations, once interned at Koch Industries and was a fellow at the Koch-backed Fund for American Studies.
Taylor will work under new deputy assistant to the president and Senate deputy director of legislative affairs Amy Swonger, a corporate lobbyist from Heather Podesta’s firm who represented oil and uranium companies (though not Koch Industries) and has lobbied Congress on the Affordable Care Act.
Health care battle continues
The Kochs’ massive political fund is a weapon they can use at any time. According to U.S. Court of Appeals judge Richard Posner, “No one is competing with the Koch Brothers. They have too much money. They own a great many Republican officials.”
In an interesting twist in the AHCA fight, on the same day that Short announced his appointments, Freedom Partners pledged to support any members of Congress who voted against the GOP plan in their 2018 elections. Essentially a bribery scheme, this tactic appears to at least have contributed somewhat to the downfall of the AHCA.
Now that the AHCA flopped, Freedom Partners is pushing for a full repeal of Obamacare and a replacement plan even more austere than its GOP-created predecessor. The group is publicizing a pro-big business scheme it devised in January that would create high-risk pools, get rid of mandates, expand health savings accounts, cut Medicaid and loosen regulations in order to weaken standards for drug approval and protect doctors from medical malpractice suits, among other things.
In a press conference on March 28 with House Speaker Paul Ryan, Majority Whip Steve Scalise claimed Republican leaders were “closer…than we ever were before” at crafting a repeal and replace bill that will pass the chamber. But when your primary goal is huge tax cuts for the very wealthy and big breaks for giant insurance companies, there’s no way your plan won’t price out low-income Americans and increase costs for the majority of those who can afford to stay insured. In other words, whatever bill they come up with will still be awful, Americans will reject it, and even if the Kochtopus supports it, it’s hard to see how Congress will have the votes to pass it.
Meanwhile, Trump picked fights with the far-right Freedom Caucus, which is full of legislators who owe their careers to the Koch brothers. Many entered Congress during the Obama era and know nothing about legislating because all they’ve managed to do since moving to Washington is block Obama’s policies and symbolically vote more than 60 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act. If, in fact, the Trump-Freedom Caucus twitter war was not a charade, Trump managed to piss off basically everyone: Democrats, “moderate” Republicans and the Freedom Caucus, not to mention the wing of the GOP led by Ryan, who’s had plenty of friction with Trump and chief White House adviser, white nationalist Steve Bannon.
Hilariously, Trump floated the idea of working with Democrats on a health care bill, and the administration still claims that this is a possibility. Seeing how rowdy town halls have been this year, it’s hard to imagine any significant number of Democrats willing to face angry crowds of voters in order to work with Trump on what will inevitably be worse than what they’ve got now. Maybe Trump convert Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia will heed the call, but it’s doubtful many other Democrats would follow his lead.
If Democrats had any real political will, they’d be skywriting “Medicare for All” every hour of every day in every state. But besides the progressive wing of the party, Democrats appear happy to continue shooting themselves in the feet.
Meanwhile, red states including even Kansas, Georgia and North Carolina that opposed Medicaid expansion are now reconsidering in the wake of the botched ACA repeal effort. (On March 30, Gov. Brownback of Kansas tragically vetoed a Medicaid expansion bill his legislature passed that would have expanded the program to 150,000 people.) So-called “moderate” Republicans in states like New Jersey and Ohio, which did expand the program, know that a vote for taking away basic health access from their constituents would be pretty damaging to their reelection chances. It appears that non-expansion states are beginning to accept the no-brainer that free or low-cost health care is popular among the people they represent, many of whom would have had Medicaid since the ACA went into effect in 2014 if their governors and state legislatures hadn’t refused to give it to them.