Conservative Dark-Money Groups Push Deceptive Ads Against Biden’s Agenda

Corporate interest groups linked to the Koch brothers and the Trump administration seek to turn the public against the Build Back Better plan.

Photo illustration: Soohee Cho/The Intercept; Photos: Getty Images

“Do you want to continue with this medication?” asks an actor portraying a doctor in a new political ad, holding a pill bottle out to a fictional patient. When the patient nods, the fake doctor turns left to two people in dark suits, who frown and shake their heads. “I’m sorry,” the doctor tells the patient. “Insurance companies and Washington bureaucrats — these guys are working together to swipe $500 billion from Medicare to pay for Pelosi and Schumer’s out-of-control spending spree.”

The ad was put out last month by the 60 Plus Association, a Kochfunded 501(c)(4) group founded in 1992 by a Republican Senate staffer as a conservative alternative to AARP. Contrary to the ad’s claims, the spending package Democrats are now trying to push through Congress — using the filibuster-proof reconciliation process — would expand Medicare benefits to cover dental, vision, and hearing and allow Medicare to negotiate lower drug prices. AARP has described the group, which does not disclose its donors, as one of several “front groups that purport to represent older Americans but instead push industry friendly political messages.” It is one of five dark-money groups that recently joined a coalition asking members of Congress to vote against the historic social spending package known as the Build Back Better plan, the centerpiece of President Joe Biden’s agenda.

As right-wing Democrats in Congress have obstructed the Build Back Better plan, conservative dark-money and corporate interest groups representing the fossil fuel and pharmaceutical industries have recognized an opportunity to thwart Biden’s agenda. Major trade associations like Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA, and the American Petroleum Institute, along with a web of conservative and dark-money groups tied to former President Donald Trump, congressional Republicans, and the Koch network, are funding ads and lobbying against the package. According to new research from the nonpartisan watchdog group Accountable.US, at least 13 conservative and dark-money groups have spent millions on ads and lobbying efforts since April.


Drug Industry Hires Its Former Critics as Lobbyists Against Medicare Price Negotiations

On Wednesday, One Nation, a dark-money group with ties to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Pfizer, launched a $10 million ad campaign against the package. One Nation President Steven Law, McConnell’s top lieutenant outside the Senate, said “infighting” over the package “has created opportunities to weaken or stop it.”

Five other groups are part of the Save America Coalition, a $10 million campaign to kill the package launched September 17 by the America First Policy Institute, a nonprofit run by former Trump administration officials seeking to preserve the former president’s policy agenda. The coalition tends to claim that the spending package would increase taxes, utility bills, and prescription drug prices for working people. But all of the groups or their backers have supported past Republican efforts to bolster the fossil fuel industry, privatize social security, end Medicare, and cut taxes for corporations and the wealthy.

Biden’s spending package would expand Medicare, extend the child tax credit, and pay utility companies to switch to renewable energy sources that don’t emit greenhouse gases. The plan, which would reverse corporate tax cuts implemented under Trump, would fund itself through tax increases on corporations and the wealthy. The package includes a provision that would allow the federal government to negotiate with manufacturers on the price of some prescription drugs and save $456 billion over the next decade, according to an estimate from the Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation. The provision mirrors a drug pricing reform bill — much despised by the GOP, right-wing Democrats, and the pharmaceutical industry — that House Democrats passed in 2019 and is named for the late Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md. The bill stalled in the Senate.

Other provisions in the package would cut tax breaks to fossil fuel companies and increase the costs of drilling on federal land. Fossil fuel companies are lobbying against the corporate tax increase and claim that the package could result in job cuts.

“Congress is trying to place further restrictions on U.S. development and impose new taxes on American energy while advancing misguided power sector proposals that fail to recognize the critical role of natural gas in driving further emissions reductions,” said Frank Macchiarola, senior vice president of Policy, Economics, and Regulatory Affairs for the American Petroleum Institute, in a statement to The Intercept. “This import-more-oil strategy is a backward approach to addressing our shared climate goals and will only serve to stifle job creation, weaken U.S. energy security and undermine the nation’s economic recovery.”

When the Save America Coalition launched last month, it pledged “to defeat Biden’s reconciliation efforts.” It is led by the America First Policy Institute and includes several dark-money and corporate interest groups like FreedomWorks and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a group funded by the Koch brothers. Trump Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe and former Energy Secretary Rick Perry, well known for his close relationship with the oil and gas industry as governor of Texas, run the institute’s policy areas on national security and “energy independence.”

Not long after he resigned from the White House, Perry was appointed in January 2020 to rejoin the board of the general partner of Energy Transfer, the major Dallas oil pipeline firm behind the Dakota Access pipeline. Current America First Policy Institute president and CEO Brooke Rollins was formerly Perry’s general counsel and policy director, and her husband is the president and a board member of HKN Energy Ltd., an oil firm that operates in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. Rollins went on to become president and CEO of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which reportedly helped draft Perry’s policy proposals as governor. At least eight former Texas Public Policy Foundation staff members, including Rollins, went on to work in the Trump White House.

In a response to questions about the group’s lobbying against the Biden agenda sent to Texas Public Policy Foundation spokesperson Adam Burnett, Vance Ginn, the group’s chief economist, wrote: “I don’t know the answer to the first few questions. I’d recommend not responding,” in an email that appeared to accidentally include this reporter. Burnett declined to comment.

Another member of the Save America Coalition is FreedomWorks, a Koch-aligned dark-money group that helped start the tea party movement and organize protests last year to oppose Covid-19 lockdowns and “count legal votes” after Biden won the presidential election. In a statement to the Intercept, FreedomWorks spokesperson Peter Vicenzi denied reporting that the group had helped organize “Stop the Steal” protests, writing that “FreedomWorks organized rallies urging officials to abide by the laws on the books and ensure that every legal ballot was accurately counted.”

FreedomWorks claims that the reconciliation package is “flooded with Green New Deal policies, cradle-to-grave welfare programs, and an unsustainable expansion of entitlement programs like Medicare.” The group criticized the bill’s provision to raise taxes on tobacco, saying the goal was “not to discourage tobacco consumption, but to pay for their socialist plan,” and claimed that the package’s Medicare negotiation provisions would raise drug costs. The group has previously pushed theories denying the existence of climate change.

Another conservative coalition group formed to fight Biden’s agenda in March. Led by former Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff Marc Short, the Coalition to Protect American Workers is planning a seven-figure ad buy targeting congressional Democrats’ stances on provisions in the reconciliation package. Short, a Koch operative whose wife worked for the Koch Foundation and other Koch-funded groups, was the subject of a complaint to the FBI from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics and Washington that claimed Short held stock in companies that were impacted by the federal Covid-19 pandemic response. Last month, CREW filed an ethics complaint against Short because he did not file a required financial disclosure report when he left the White House in January.

A third coalition is Conservatives for Property Rights, a group that includes the 60 Plus Association, which released the anti-drug pricing reform ad last month. Despite its televised claims to want to defend Medicare, the 60 Plus Association backed former Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan’s 2011 plan to end the program and turn it into a capped voucher system, as well as former President George W. Bush’s push to privatize Social Security.

Industry groups are “masquerading as advocates for everyday families while they’re really fighting to keep billion-dollar corporations from paying their fair share.”

Also targeting the drug pricing reform attempts is PhRMA, which launched a seven-figure ad buy in September opposing reconciliation proposals. PhRMA is also a top donor to American Action Network, a 501(c)(4) dark-money group that launched a $5 million ad campaign in August and is lobbying in 39 districts, many of them represented by moderate Democrats. The group claims that the reconciliation package would increase taxes on small businesses and working families and released a poll last month from seven congressional districts showing general opposition to the $3.5 trillion plan for “new social welfare spending.” American Action Network shares a communications director with the Congressional Leadership Fund, a Republican super PAC.

PhRMA spokesperson Sarah Sutton said the group’s lobbying efforts have focused only on the bill’s provisions related to drug pricing and that “it is misleading to suggest we are lobbying against the broader bill when our focus is on policies that impact patient access to medicines and future innovation.” American Action Network did not respond to a request for comment.

The Common Sense Leadership Fund, a 501(c)(4) group with deep ties to congressional leadership that started in March, launched ads targeting Democratic senators in swing states like Mark Kelly of Arizona and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire. The group, which claims that the reconciliation package would increase the cost of living for working-class families, is led by President Kevin McLaughlin, a GOP political strategist and former executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee; Lester Williamson, former NRSC finance director; and Kevin Golden, who was McConnell’s 2020 campaign manager and was on McConnell’s payroll as recently as February. In 2017, McLaughlin lobbied on tax policy for corporations and related interest groups that have strongly opposed the reconciliation package and corporate tax increases, including Business Roundtable and Walmart.

Industry groups fighting the package are “masquerading as advocates for everyday families while they’re really fighting to keep billion-dollar corporations from paying their fair share,” said Kyle Herrig, president of Accountable.US. “Any lawmaker that is a target of this smear campaign need only look at the mountain of polling to know the American people are fully behind Biden’s plan to finally make corporations contribute to investments that will lower costs and build a stronger economy for all.”

Corporate executives want to avoid taxes, shirk responsibility for the climate crisis, and maintain their profits, Congressional Progressive Caucus Whip Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., said in a statement to The Intercept. “It is shameful, but not surprising, that some of the most well-funded and criminal corporate lobbyists in the world are doing everything in their power to kill the President’s agenda.”

Business Roundtable, a corporate lobbying group that represents the country’s top CEOs including Apple and Walmart, launched a multimillion-dollar lobbying campaign in recent months to fight corporate tax increases in the package. A Business Roundtable spokesperson said the group has not announced a position on the package itself but opposes its corporate tax increases. Asked about the Congressional Budget Office estimate of federal savings resulting from the bill’s drug pricing provisions, the group’s president and CEO Joshua Bolten pointed to an August analysis from the Joint Committee on Taxation that found that in the short term, the corporate tax “is borne entirely by owners of capital” and that “only in the longer run” did its methodology assign “some of the burden of the corporate tax to those taxpayers who earn labor income in addition to owners of capital.”


Dark-Money Group to Donors: Reconciliation Bill Can Still Be Killed

Walmart, which has avoided paying billions of dollars in taxes, has also lobbied against corporate tax increases in both the reconciliation and infrastructure packages.

“For far too long, the wealthiest taxpayers and big corporations – those who can afford lobbyists – have been able to write a special set of rules for themselves while everyone else, despite working harder than ever, is left further and further behind,” said White House spokesperson Andrew Bates in a statement to The Intercept. “The President is dead-set on changing that, and these efforts by big money interests make our case for us in the most compelling way possible.”

“Big corporations are using their inside games to lobby against popular provisions in the Build Back Better plan and keep the tax system rigged for the wealthy and rich corporations,” said Senate Committee on Finance member Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. “It’s time to stand against corporate interests and stand up for hardworking Americans so we can get this done.”

“Fossil fuel executives would like to escape any responsibility for the climate catastrophe that they created and to sink any bill that would cut into their bottom line. Billionaires would like to do anything they can to oppose a bill that would force them to actually pay their taxes. And drug executives would like to keep drug prices high so that they continue to profit off Americans’ suffering,” said Omar. “This is what we’re up against. But we know that organized people will always defeat organized money.”

Update: October 15, 2:44 p.m. ET

This article has been updated to include a comment from a White House spokesperson.

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