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The Kochs Are Already Getting What They Paid for in Congress

What the Keystone debate is really about

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Ask progressives what the last three weeks of Senate debate on a Keystone XL bill was really about, and they might mention the Koch brothers. “The Republican's Keystone XL obsession is about one thing and one thing only—a direct payback to Big Oil, specifically to the Koch brothers,” Credo’s Senior Campaign Manager Elijah Zarlin said in response to the Senate passing a Keystone XL bill, 62-36, on Thursday. 

It's not just a talking point. Just one month into the new Congress, and already the Kochs' fossil fuel interests—which include oil pipelines and refineries—have neatly aligned with Republican priorities. The Koch network's campaign for and against Keystone amendments not only offers a preview of future energy battles, but demonstrate their difficult-to-quantify political influence. 

In January, three conservative groups—Heritage Action, American Energy Alliance (AEA), and Americans for Prosperity (AFP)—combined for a total of seven key vote alerts on amendments that would count in their congressional scorecards. The alerts serve as a warning: If a senator votes against the group's interest, he or she risks future attacks from the right. All three groups are tied to the Kochs: AFP is considered the brothers' "main political arm," and they have contributed to Heritage and AEA.

The groups helped defeat an amendment from Heidi Heitkamp, a North Dakota Democrat, that would have reinstated the wind production tax credit for five years. Heitkamp couldn't even scrape together a majority of senators for what historically has been a popular, bipartisan policy. Wind energy happens to be big in red states, so it has the support from Republicans like Iowa's Chuck Grassley, but it has long been a target for conservative, fossil-fuel-aligned groups. AEA, AFP, and Heritage all recommended a "no" vote on the amendment, in line with the Koch network's years-long campaign to eliminate renewable tax credits (while oil's tax breaks remain politically untouchable). 

Just three Republicans backed the amendment, while many senators from major wind states voted against the measure. Some said they voted against it because it didn't phase out the credit over time. Cory Gardner (who represents Colorado, a top 10 wind state) also voted against it. He had touted his clean energy credentials during the campaign, but he also benefited from Koch ads and donations. Gardner's move to an anti-wind position puts him in good company of other Republicans, like Kansas Governor Sam Brownback, who've similarly flipped after accepting Koch donations. AEA issued two additional recommendations that members of Congress vote against renewing tax credits for green cars and a federal renewable energy mandate. Both measures failed.

Conservative groups weren’t successful on every key vote for Keystone amendments, but that was only because of Democratic filibusters. AEA endorsed Republican Jerry Moran's failed amendment to take the lesser praire chicken off of a government list of threatened species. Roy Blunt wanted to prevent President Barack Obama from using his executive authority to fight climate change and limit the U.S.'s ability to engage in international climate talks. Heritage endorsed it, but its 51 votes weren't enough to overcome a filibuster.

All three groups endorsed the overall Keystone XL bill, of course. Koch Industries stands to gain financially from the pipeline’s construction, because the behemoth company owns an estimated 1.1 million acres of leases for Canada's tar sands and the pipeline would likely boost development there.

Of course, all of this is for naught: Obama has promised to veto the bill. But if nothing else, this two-week-long charade on Capitol Hill has allowed Republicans to declare their undying allegiance to the Kochs.