The media’s telescopic gaze following the death of Supreme Court Justice Scalia last week was, true to form, pointing in exactly the wrong direction. Scalia’s death prompted a breathless flood of pundit analysis focused on whether the Republican Party is violating Senate protocol or the Constitution itself by refusing to vote on the nomination of a new Supreme Court Justice in President Obama’s final year in office. Much chatter was devoted to rehashing the deliberate obstruction this president has had to cope with. While undoubtedly true, this misses the forest for the trees. It doesn’t matter so much what Republicans’ “excuse” is—or even whether it violates the clear intent of the Constitution—it does.
What really matters is why they're doing it, and who it serves. The answer to that question leads straight to their donor base. Although it scarcely bears repeating, the Republican Senate and (to an even greater extent) the Republican House of Representatives now exists to serve the economic interests of a tiny group of very, very wealthy people, people who now stand to either gain or lose hundreds of millions, even billions of dollars spent complying with environmental, finance and labor laws and regulations, depending on who replaces Scalia. That is what this fight is all about. For the GOP and the billionaires who pull their strings, much ballyhooed rhetoric about abortion, affirmative action, union rights and voting rights are all subsidiary to this main event.
The two most prominent members of this tiny group of people are Charles and David Koch:
In this election cycle... the Kochs have publicly stated that they and their compatriots will spend $889 million, more than either the Republican or Democratic parties spent last time around. According to a recent analysis in Politico, their privatized political network is backed by a group of several hundred extremely rich fellow donors who often meet at off-the-record conclaves organized by the Kochs at desert resorts. It has at least 1,200 full-time staffers in 107 offices nationwide, or three and a half times as many as the Republican National Committee. They may be the most important unelected political figures in American history.
The Koch brothers are widely recognized as the most important donors to the Republican Party. Their influence on the Republican Party is so smothering that many observers have recognized it to have supplanted the normal party apparatus itself, in effect, operating through its vast network of organizations as the de facto Party itself. At least two of the Supreme Court justices, the now-deceased Scalia and his go-along lackey Clarence Thomas, were fully invested in the Kochs’ hopes and dreams, attending their secretive conferences whose topics included “climate change alarmism” and “the regulatory assault on energy.” Sensing the immediacy of the crisis last week, the Kochs’ front group, “Judicial Crisis Network” took to the airwaves before Scalia’s body was even embalmed:
The Judicial Crisis Network’s seven-figure ad buy features a 30-second television spot entitled “Let the People Decide,” in which a narrator says that “your voice in November is the only voice” to express an opinion on the vacancy on the court left by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.
“Sen. Kelly Ayotte agrees; the American people should decide,” the narrator says. “This isn’t about Republicans or Democrats it’s about your voice. You choose the next president.”
“Call Senator Kelly Ayotte. Thank her for letting the people decide,” the ad says.
Similar ads are tailored to the other senators -- Charles Grassley in Iowa, Ron Johnson in Wisconsin, John McCain in Arizona, Mitch McConnell in Kentucky and Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania.
“Judicial Crisis Network” is a 501(c)4 group that receives funding from the Wellspring Committee, a Koch-founded organization. Its purpose is to influence public opinion, and either reward or punish senators depending on whether they vote in the Koch Brothers’ and similar gas/oil interests. Those interests, more than anything else, are in rolling back government regulation of their oil, gas and coal companies’ activities, activities which are significantly regulated because by their very nature they threaten our lands, waters, and the air we breathe.
Another Koch-spawned “conservative advocacy group”, FreedomWorks, has echoed the same veiled warning against allowing any hearing on the President’s Supreme Court nomination, admonishing Republican Senators to obey.
Bill McKibben, reviewing Dark Money, the Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of The Radical Right, Jane Mayer’s investigative tour de force about the Kochs’ empire, puts his finger on the primary motivation of the Kochs to alter our structure of government for their own benefit:
Charles [Koch] constantly disparaged government regulations as “socialistic,” perhaps not because they were costing him money—not nearly as much money as his polluting plants were making him, but enough to sting. In 2000, for instance, Koch Industries paid what was then the largest fine in history ($30 million) for violating the Clean Water Act; in 2012, they were listed as the largest producer of toxic waste in the nation. Even the minor players in this saga conformed to this rule. John Menard Jr., for instance, the richest man in Wisconsin and a member of the Koch donor network who helped back Scott Walker, ran a home improvement chain that paid $1.7 million in fines for illegally disposing of hazardous waste and “in one memorable instance, [Menard’s] company reportedly labeled arsenic-tainted mulch as ‘ideal for playgrounds.’”
The Supreme Court is the final arbiter of any regulation propounded by the Executive Branch through its agencies such as the EPA, the Department of Labor, or the interpretation of any law passed by Congress. It is therefore imperative, from the Kochs’ perspective, that President Obama not be permitted to alter the Court’s conservative ideological orientation, which is deregulatory at its core.
The Supreme Court’s interpretation of the federal regulations that provide the lifeblood for our environmental and labor laws became a matter of political ideology with the Rehnquist Court in the 1980’s, as more and more regulations governing labor and the environment were targeted by radical conservative judges spawned by organizations such as the Federalist Society, who eagerly spread a philosophy of pro-business activism nobly disguised as “judicial restraint.” Rehnquist’s own clerk, John Roberts, now Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, is a product of these anti-regulatory efforts (Roberts was also instrumental in conservatives’ decades-long battle to roll back voting rights for African Americans, a goal that dovetails perfectly with the Kochs’ desire to dominate state legislatures and the U.S. Congress to achieve their ends). The Court’s recent 5-4 ruling suspending the Administration’s efforts to curtail greenhouse gas emissions is simply the latest example of why the ideological balance of the Court is now of such critical importance.
Of course the Kochs’ influence and domination of the political landscape could be significantly diminished by a Court that reverses Citizens United and its progeny which have allowed this obscene state of affairs to exist. That 5-4 decision would likely be reversed in short order if the Kochs and their proxies in the Republican Party permitted President Obama the fair vote on a nominee that is his due. With that, all of their plans to warp or undermine the U.S. government to serve their needs would be at risk.
Confirmation fights for Supreme Court justices are a part of American history, but the complete refusal by a political party to entertain a vote on a nominee is without precedent in modern times. The actions of GOP Senate are the logical extension of their refusal, since assuming a majority, to voluntarily allow a vote on virtually any of this president’s judicial nominees. It is no accident that that the willingness of virtually every Republican senator to flout and disregard the Constitution as if it amounted to nothing but sidestepping a piece of trash on the sidewalk coincides with the total domination of the GOP by private citizens like the Kochs, who have no fealty or responsibility towards the Constitution to begin with.
The Kochs’ far-reaching tentacles have made it abundantly clear who calls the shots, issues the marching orders, and pulls the strings for the party. So when the media say “the Republicans” are deciding how and why they’ll oppose the president’s authority to nominate the next Supreme Court Justice, we should remember it’s not really the Republicans whose faces we’ve come to recognize in the media that are fighting to stop the nomination. It’s the Kochs and their ilk who have effectively taken our country hostage.