Caught on Tape: What Mitch McConnell Complained About to a Roomful of Billionaires (Exclusive)
Last week, in an interview with Politico, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) outlined his plan to shut down President Obama’s legislative agenda by placing riders on appropriations bills. Should Republicans take control of the Senate in the 2014 elections, McConnell intends to pass spending bills that “have a lot of restrictions on the activities of the bureaucracy.”
What McConnell didn’t tell Politico was that two months ago, he made the same promise to a secret strategy conference of conservative millionaire and billionaire donors hosted by the Koch brothers. The Nation and The Undercurrent obtained an audio recording of McConnell’s remarks to the gathering, called “American Courage: Our Commitment to a Free Society.” In the question-and-answer period following his June 15 session titled “Free Speech: Defending First Amendment Rights,” McConnell says:
“So in the House and Senate, we own the budget. So what does that mean? That means that we can pass the spending bill. And I assure you that in the spending bill, we will be pushing back against this bureaucracy by doing what’s called placing riders in the bill. No money can be spent to do this or to do that. We’re going to go after them on healthcare, on financial services, on the Environmental Protection Agency, across the board [inaudible]. All across the federal government, we’re going to go after it.”
McConnell’s pledge to “go after” Democrats on financial services—a reference to declawing Dodd-Frank regulation—is a key omission from his Politico interview. He has been a vocal opponent of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in particular, and presumably under his Senate leadership funding for the CFPB would be high on the list of riders for the appropriations chopping block. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Wall Street was the number-one contributor to McConnell’s campaign committee from 2009 to 2014.
McConnell is running against Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes in a close contest that could determine which party controls the Senate. Total spending in the race is expected to exceed $100 million, which would make it the most expensive Senate election in history. As of July 21, PACs and individuals affiliated with Koch Industries have given at least $41,800 to McConnell’s campaign committee in this election cycle—a figure that does not include any funding to outside groups that could spend heavily in the race’s closing weeks.
Recently, Grimes has begun airing ads that criticize McConnell for “voting seventeen times against raising the minimum wage” and “twelve times against extending unemployment benefits for laid-off workers.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, McConnell himself seems quite proud of this legislative record, at least in front of an audience comprised of wealthy donors. After he lays out his agenda to shrink the federal government “across the board,” McConnell says:
“And we’re not going to be debating all these gosh darn proposals. That’s all we do in the Senate is vote on things like raising the minimum wage [inaudible]—cost the country 500,000 new jobs; extending unemployment—that’s a great message for retirees; uh, the student loan package the other day, that’s just going to make things worse, uh. These people believe in all the wrong things.”
In late April, Senate Republicans, led by McConnell, successfully filibustered a bill to increase the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, a widely popular measure that would increase wages for at least 16.5 million Americans. Earlier in the year, McConnell also led a filibuster of a three-month extension of unemployment insurance to some 1.7 million Americans. At one point in the negotiations, he offered a deal to extend unemployment only if Democrats agreed to repeal the Affordable Care Act, even though the ACA does not add to the federal deficit.
Just days before he addressed the Koch brothers’ billionaire donor summit, McConnell was instrumental in blocking Senator Elizabeth Warren’s proposal to help Americans refinance their growing student loan debt. Warren’s plan would have been funded by a new minimum tax on America’s wealthiest. After McConnell’s filibuster, Warren began campaigning for Grimes in Kentucky saying, “Mitch McConnell is there for millionaires and billionaires. He is not there for people who are working hard playing by the rules and trying to build a future for themselves.” On the campaign stump, McConnell has said that “not everybody needs to go to Yale” and that cash-strapped students should look into for-profit colleges.
The main thrust of McConnell’s remarks to the Koch conference were about his pet issue, campaign finance, which he regards as a matter of free speech. (A full transcript of McConnell’s remarks is available here). The senator recounted the history of campaign finance reform in America from the twentieth century through today, sharing opinions and personal anecdotes along the way.
On Democrats: “They, they are frightened of, of their critics. They don’t want to join the tradition in open discourse. They want to use the power of the government to quiet the voices of their critics.” (According to a 2013 report from Public Campaign Action Fund, McConnell led sixty-seven filibusters in 2012, more than the total number of filibusters (fifty-eight) in the fifty-four years between 1917 and 1970).
On Citizens United and money in politics: “So all Citizens United did was to level the playing field for corporate speech…. We now have, I think, the most free and open system we’ve had in modern times. The Supreme Court allowed all of you to participate in the process in a variety of different ways. You can give to the candidate of your choice. You can give to Americans for Prosperity, or something else, a variety of different ways to push back against the party of government.”
On McCain-Feingold: “The worst day of my political life was when President George W. Bush signed McCain-Feingold into law in the early part of his first administration.”
To put that in perspective, Mitch McConnell’s thirty-five-year career in the Senate saw the 9/11 terrorist attacks that killed thousands of Americans, the 2008 housing meltdown that threatened the entire economy and Barack Obama’s election, to cite a conservative bête noire. But it was McCain-Feingold, the bill that banned soft money and unlimited donations to party committees, that constitutes the worst day of his political life.
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