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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Guilt By Association in Louisiana

In a classic case of misdirection, the Senate Majority PAC claims the “out-of-state billionaire Koch brothers” are spending millions to elect Republican Bill Cassidy so that he will “fight for them” on issues such as their “fight to let flood insurance premiums soar.” The problem: Cassidy championed the flood insurance legislation the Koch brothers opposed.

The ad also makes a wholly indefensible claim that the Koch brothers — through the conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity — “cut off hurricane relief for Louisiana families.” AFP opposed a Sandy relief bill — because it said the bill was laden with pork and should be offset with other budget cuts. AFP maintains that it did not oppose funding for legitimate Sandy relief. But more importantly, that had nothing to do with aid to “Louisiana families.” Other evidence cited by the Senate Majority PAC for this claim is even thinner.

The Senate Majority PAC, a Democratic super PAC, has gone on the offensive against the Koch brothers in an attempt to educate voters about the agenda behind Americans for Prosperity, which has invested heavily in attacking Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu and other Democratic candidates in the midterm elections.

Announcer: We’ve been battered by hurricanes, lost everything to floods. And for thousands of Louisianans, flood insurance and hurricane relief were our only protection. But the out-of-state billionaire Koch brothers funded the fight to let flood insurance premiums soar, helping the insurance companies. And cut off hurricane relief for Louisiana families. Now they’re spending millions to buy a Senate seat for Bill Cassidy, so he can fight for them. If the Kochs and Cassidy win, Louisiana loses.

Let’s start with the claim that the “Koch brothers funded the fight to let flood insurance premiums soar, helping the insurance companies.” This relates to the National Flood Insurance Program, which is billions of dollars in the red. In 2012, the House passed legislation that sought to phase in premium hikes to bring them in line with the actual cost of risk — so that taxpayers aren’t left picking up the difference. The bill, however, threatened to result in “stratospheric” flood insurance rate hikes for many homeowners in flood-prone areas such as in Louisiana.

Late last year, legislation was proposed to soften the blow of rate hikes by reinstating grandfathered rates and capping premium increases. AFP and a coalition of other conservative groups opposed the legislation, arguing that it is not “reasonable to leave taxpayers on the hook for insuring private property.”

But here’s the rub: Cassidy — the target of the Senate Majority PAC ad — led the charge for the legislation, which ultimately passed and was signed into law by President Obama. In a letter to New Orleans’ Times-Picayune, Republican Rep. Michael Grimm, who introduced the bill, thanked Cassidy for his efforts in shepherding it to fruition.

Grimm, March 22: The process to bring this critical legislation across the finish line was by no means easy and would not have been possible without the hard work and leadership of Rep. Bill Cassidy of Baton Rouge.

… I am extremely grateful to Dr. Cassidy for being such a dedicated partner in our efforts to protect homeowners throughout the country. Without his contributions, the House’s ability to forestall the catastrophic effects of Biggert-Waters and pass a far-reaching relief bill for the hard-working folks from the Big Apple to the Big Easy may never have been realized at all.

Cassidy, himself, put out a press release with a timeline highlighting his involvement in the legislation at every stage. In other words, here’s the logic: A is funded by B. B supports position C. Therefore, A supports C. Except, in this case, A does not support C. In fact, A worked against C. As Glenn Kessler, our fact-checking colleague at the Washington Post, put it: “If anything, Cassidy could run an ad saying that he took on the Kochs — even though they are backing him — and beat them.”

‘Cut Off Hurricane Relief for Louisiana Families’?

This is the second Senate Majority PAC ad that targets Cassidy by going after the Koch brothers. The first ad makes a similar, but more generic claim that the Koch brothers/AFP “even tried to kill relief for hurricane victims.” It’s true that AFP urged senators to vote against the Hurricane Sandy disaster-aid supplemental, H.R. 152, “unless the legislation is fully offset with other spending reductions.” AFP President Tim Phillips said it was also concerned that “Washington politicians are using this tragedy to secure billions in spending for their own pet projects like fisheries in Alaska, new cars for Homeland Security or tree planting on private property.”

Americans for Prosperity wasn’t the only group unhappy with the bill. Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan group that tracks government earmarks, raised concerns about extraneous and non-emergency spending in the bill, and argued that at least the non-emergency spending should have been offset.

“I don’t think supporting offsets and calling for stripping non-emergency funding is the same thing as trying ‘to kill relief for hurricane victims,’ ” Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense told us via email. “Especially since a lot of that bill wasn’t about relief at all.”

AFP spokesman Chris Neefus assured us via email that AFP did not oppose the underlying hurricane relief. He noted that AFP supported South Carolina Rep. Mick Mulvaney’s amendment to offset $17 billion in Sandy disaster relief by cutting 1.63 percent from every federal agency, including the military — though the amendment failed 162-258. AFP also supported an amendment from Sen. Mike Lee to offset the full cost of Sandy relief through across-the-board cuts from defense and domestic appropriations. That amendment failed 35-62.

Nonetheless, a comment from AFP’s New Jersey director at the time gave us pause. Steve Lonegan, then Americans for Prosperity’s New Jersey state director — who went on to run unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in New Jersey in 2013 — made a comment to reporters in December 2012 that suggested opposition to any kind of federal disaster aid.

“Tragic things happen every day to people – worse things than having your house flood – and we don’t hand them a check,” Lonegan said. “Having your shore house flood doesn’t rank … This is not a federal government responsibility. We need to suck it up and be responsible for taking care of ourselves.”

AFP’s Neefus told us Lonegan is no longer with AFP and that he was expressing his personal opinion, not that of AFP.

“Let me be unequivocal that AFP believes disaster relief funds are a reasonable function of government,” Neefus said. “We have weighed in on the side of responsible disaster budgeting, not eliminating disaster relief.”

More important, the latest ad makes the claim that the Koch brothers “cut off hurricane relief for Louisiana families.” The Sandy relief bill — which was cited atop back-up material the Senate Majority PAC sent us for the claim — has nothing to do with Louisiana residents. The other articles cited by Senate Majority PAC to back up the claim are even more tenuous. For one, the Senate Majority PAC cites AFP’s efforts in 2006 to strip $14 billion in pork spending from a Senate emergency bill to, in part, pay for repairs related to Hurricane Katrina. But it’s one thing to oppose pork attached to a spending bill, and quite another to oppose the underlying hurricane relief. There’s simply nothing to this claim.

More generally, the Senate Majority PAC points to AFP’s opposition to the 2012 Budget Disasters Act on the grounds that Congress ought to offset disaster relief spending with cuts from elsewhere in the federal budget. In addition, they note that AFP supported Rep. Paul Ryan’s 2013 budget plan, which called for nearly $5.3 trillion less in spending over 10 years than did Obama’s budget. Some liberal groups warned that could lead to cuts in disaster aid, but as we have noted in the past, the Ryan budget plan didn’t include enough detail to justify that kind of specific speculation.

In short, there is not enough there to justify a claim that the Koch brothers, “cut off hurricane relief for Louisiana families.” Nor is there any shred of evidence to speculate that Cassidy would support such efforts if elected to the Senate.

— Robert Farley