The Long History of Attacks on Build Back Better’s Climate and Paid Leave Provisions via one Dark Money Group
The Independent Women's Forum/Voice are at it again...
By Alyssa Bowen
The True North Research team has been busy. Our leader Lisa Graves was featured in several widely distributed articles on subjects as diverse as the Koch network’s funding of Critical Race Theory bans (Associated Press), the “Independent” Women’s Forum’s role in fueling opposition to school mask mandates (Washington Post), and the rollout of a plan to sabotage the wildly popular United States Postal Service by its Trump-appointed board (Truthout). Graves also published an op-ed in Common Dreams and was featured on FAIR’s Counterspin podcast regarding efforts to privatize the U.S. Postal Service. She appeared on The Rick Smith Show to discuss the Washington Post article about the spread of Covid-19 misinformation.
But the dark money and corporate networks attempting to undermine our democracy never sleep, and our work is as necessary as ever.
In this week’s True North Substack we examine long-standing efforts by the Independent Women’s Forum to attack two major public policy issues redressed in President Biden’s Build Back Better initiative: Paid Family and Medical Leave and climate change mitigation.
Unsurprisingly given their general disdain for social safety net programs that protect the well being of women and families, the Independent Women’s Forum is actively attacking the Build Back Better plan, now being considered by Congress as part of the federal budget reconciliation. IWF has maligned the plan as supposedly constituting a “government takeover” of day care and preschool, promoting “extreme” climate change actions, harming small businesses, and “remov[ing] employment choices for workers, especially women and minorities.” (Eliminating employment “choice” is oft-used rhetoric by IWF when it denigrates federal protections for workers in favor of precarious gig economy work.)
Below we explain IWF’s long history of attacking the widely popular Paid Family and Medical Leave and climate change mitigation efforts. To receive more real time research findings from True North Research on the well-financed forces distorting our democracy, please subscribe to our free newsletter.
Beware Big Oil- and Gas-Funded Climate Change Deniers Turned “Climate Policy Experts”
By Alyssa Bowen and Evan Vorpahl
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued its most urgent report to date in August, stating that humans are “unequivocally” responsible for our climate crisis and that the crisis will worsen unless immediate and substantial actions are taken now.
The Biden administration’s historic Build Back Better (BBB) plan would take key steps to mitigate the climate changes that are underway. Unfortunately for our planet, blocking climate action is not only integral to climate polluters' business model, it is a business itself. And for many pay-to-play front groups like the Independent Women’s Forum and Independent Women’s Voice (IWF/V), business appears to be good.
IWF/V has accepted money from carbon billionaire Charles Koch’s fortune and his network, as well as carbon industry companies like Marathon and Ariel Corp., the world’s largest manufacturer of what are known as reciprocating separable gas compressors that are used by corporations that frack and store “natural” gas, otherwise known as methane gas, one of the most pernicious greenhouse gasses—it is 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide in affecting our climate. IWF/V has long promoted industry interests in the media.
While they now sometimes claim to embrace “green” solutions, don’t be fooled. IWF continues to toe the industry line and help stall the most basic climate action by the U.S. government. It is therefore no surprise that they oppose Biden’s BBB with its historic climate mitigation initiatives.
IWF/V Are Long-Time Climate Change Deniers
IWF/V have a history of rejecting the established scientific consensus that climate change is real and as recently as last year they claimed that the science is not settled, a classic tactic of industry-backed groups that are merchants of doubt. Numerous IWF/V staffers or fellows have made similar claims. For example, policy director Hadley Heath Manning has said “I’m a climate change skeptic.” IWF Senior Policy Analyst Patrice Onwuka announced in September that the “facts dispute” that this year’s catastrophic and frequent natural disasters were driven by climate change, despite the views of numerous scientists (Onwuka is not a scientist and, notably, also claimed in recent testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives that she did not know who has funded IWF despite attending IWF galas where funders are prominently recognized).
IWF/V has also historically opposed measures to mitigate or even investigate climate change. In 2015, for example, IWF President Carrie Lukas attacked the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change itself. She also said the quiet part out loud regarding her opposition to federal remediation efforts, arguing that such investigation into climate change would only result in the promotion of “deeper regulation”:
“The Obama Administration isn’t waiting for the new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. That might be a good thing: As Donna Lafromboise writes in today’s Wall Street Journal, the process used to compile this report is far from unbiased. Those writing the report have deep ties to organizations committed to raising alarm bells about global warming and pushing for deeper regulations of modern life. Whatever comes out of the IPCC, it won’t merely be a reflection of the best science, but a highly political document from those in the green movement with much at stake in maximizing concern about climate change. Alas, Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency isn’t acting out of skepticism, instead it’s simply embracing the idea that we must move forward to reduce carbon emissions at all costs, even if the case for man-made, catastrophic warming is increasingly weak.”
IWF/V has also had several fellows tied to climate denial and deregulation groups. Mandy Gunasekara, who was one of Trump’s first EPA appointees and an IWF visiting fellow, pushed to exit the Paris climate accord and roll back a host of public health regulations, such as the Mercury Air Toxics Standards (MATS). Mercury is a neurotoxin that is released by burning coal and enters our food system through fish and other foods and which demonstrably harms fetal development and young children in particular.
Current fellow Samantha Dravis was one of Scott Pruitt’s first hires after Donald Trump named him to head the EPA. Before that, she worked with Pruitt on what they dubbed the “Rule of Law Defense Fund,” which attacked environmental protections and the Obama administration’s efforts to try to mitigate climate change. She was also the General Counsel for the pay-to-play group called the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA) and previously worked for Charles Koch’s political donor network which was known as the Stand Together Chamber of Commerce.
IWF/V Offers False Solutions
In recent years, IWF/V has changed some of its rhetoric on climate change, as public consensus has met scientific consensus in recognizing climate change’s existence. For example, in September, IWF joined a number of oil and gas-funded right-wing groups in celebrating “National Clean Energy Week.”
IWF/V appear to be shifting from overt climate change denialism to other tactics to thwart change at every governmental level.
For example, IWF/V has maligned climate legislation, referring to the Green New Deal as a socialist “Red Deal.” Similarly, it has accused climate change-related lawsuits against the carbon industry of “abus[ing] the judicial process for political gain.” It has also promoted inaction by focusing on other countries’ emissions.
IWF’s recent position on climate change has been to discourage even modest regulation, keep the United States out of the Paris Climate agreement, and posit nuclear energy and fracking as the “balanced” way to reduce carbon emissions. Their underlying argument is that governmental interference will discourage “industry innovation,” despite the oil and gas industries having known about climate change for decades and failing to come up with any solutions that would effectively halt climate change (as they take in windfall profits and pay their executives huge salaries and bonuses).
With the political right now acknowledging the existence of climate change, IWF/V is accusing Democrats of not truly caring about the issue, not because the Democratic Party is not doing enough, but because they are not working more with the GOP which has peddled climate change denial for decades and repeatedly attacked climate regulations. IWF Fellow Danielle Butcher has chastised Democrats for their supposed “stubbornness and resistance ” to new GOP initiatives that would subsidize lucrative industries. Meanwhile, she also asserted that the government “needs to get out of its own way” and do away with federal regulations on climate change and instead wait for “market solutions”—from the industry that has spent millions trying to delay and stop climate mitigation.
IWF/V Has Also Attacked Youth Climate Activists
On top of numerous pieces casting doubt on climate change and opposing key measures to combat it, IWF fellows have repeatedly attacked climate activists, particularly younger advocates.
For example, IWF/V has accused Greta Thunberg of “promoting apocalypse based on incomplete science,” despite well documented evidence she has cited, and it has chided her for what its spokespeople have called “unbecomingly lecturing” adults. IWF/V has also denied the moral agency of youths, like the Sunrise Kids who have called for climate justice. IWF/V has asserted that children concerned about our planet’s climate and their future are “unable to evaluate what they’ve been fed,” but “make great political pawns because they are malleable and enthusiastic,” and because any adult who pushes back on them “is automatically a meanie.” (Yet IWF/V has a whole program that spreads disinformation to children through parents as part of its “how to talk to kids about” series, as illustrated in “The Shot” part of this Substack further below.)
Meanwhile, IWF/V consistently rail against public programs that would benefit children living in poverty on the grounds that such programs would supposedly harm the economy. According to them, children need not be afraid of climate change, which is already fueling fires across the West Coast of our country as well as other extreme weather events that will only worsen without climate mitigation. In addition, the August IPCC report shows that promoting access to cleaner energy sources likely offers socioeconomic and health benefits for women and children in particular. (Similarly, IWF/V is currently railing against government subsidies for child care.)
IWF’s fellows may proudly declare that “conservation is conservative” but the group funded by fossil fuel fortunes never strays far from the industry line in opposing government efforts to mitigate the climate changes that are underway. When it comes to IWF/V’s claims on climate policy and so much more, buyer beware.
The Independent Women’s Forum Undermines the Core of its Own Imitation Paid Leave Plan to Attack BBB
By Evan Vorpahl
In late September, Independent Women’s Forum (IWF) fellow Kirstin Shapiro attacked Biden’s BBB plan in Newsweek, where she argued that any increase in payroll taxes to fund a comprehensive paid leave program and other family-friendly policies like universal pre-K would weaken Social Security. There cannot be a sustainable recovery of our economy if we leave behind caregivers and those they care for.
Paid Family and Medical Leave is immensely popular. Recent polling found 75 percent of all voters support paid leave, including 70 percent of the Republicans surveyed. These figures are consistent with years of data showing that Americans want to join the rest of the world in having these protections that aid human well-being.
In that Newsweek piece, IWF attacks the Family Act, which is proposed by Sen. Kristin Gillibrand (D-NY), by claiming it would lead to the long-term insolvency of Social Security. However, the reality is that while the program would be administered by the Social Security Administration, a new Office of Paid Family and Medical Leave would be established with an entirely separate funding source than the Social Security Trust Fund. Over time the program would actually have a positive effect on Social Security by keeping more Americans in the workforce, shoring up the base of workers paying in.
Additionally Social Security is not going broke—claims that IWF’s funder Charles Koch started peddling nearly 50 years ago—the program has taken in more than it paid out, and it began this year with a $2.9 trillion surplus. Social Security could be strengthened by scrapping the earnings cap, which means that those who earn more than $142,800 stop paying into Social Security on all income above that limit. Additionally, wealthy heirs like Mitt Romney (R-UT) and his children do not contribute to Social Security on money they take in from capital gains on their trust funds and stock holdings.
Sen. Gillibrand’s Family Act benefits would be fully-funded through payroll taxes, a mere $1.48 for the average worker, less than the cost of a cup of coffee, per week.
The Family Act would also not supersede existing benefits but it would provide vital protections for low income families. The vast majority of low-income workers have no access to paid family leave and 89 percent of part-time workers have no access to PFML. Evidence from California’s state paid leave program has shown that it helps reduce poverty too.
IWF’s Own Paid Leave Plan Would Siphon Tax Dollars Out of Social Security
In Newsweek, IWF also urged Congress to reconsider other options generally, but does not mention IWF’s “Social Security Paid Leave” scheme, which would actually take money out of the Social Security Trust Fund. Why would Shapiro attack the Family Act for supposedly weakening Social Security, but not discuss how her organization’s proposal would literally take money from Social Security?
Under the IWF plan, the “paid leave” is not funded by a tiny payroll tax but by taking money out of Social Security funds that other workers have paid into. The IWF plan is also described as a loan from Social Security, but one that does not have to be paid back for decades. And, it does not even cover most of the medical leave needs people have—it applies only to the birth or adoption of a child, not for needed leave if you, your spouse, parent, or child gets seriously ill.
IWF’s proposal is not really paid leave at all but a loan to yourself out of the Social Security Trust. If the funds are not paid back, the borrower has to postpone retiring or receive lower Social Security payments. One effect of IWF’s scheme would be to punish women, the primary users of parental leave, by making them work longer as senior citizens if they do not pay back the money they would get when they have or adopt a child. Most women already receive lower Social Security benefits because of the gender pay gap, which IWF/V also aggressively claims does not exist, despite mountains of evidence.
IWF/V’s scheme is a tactic to give rightwing politicians something to be “for” as they oppose widely popular paid family and medical leave plans. As IWF has admitted in its blog: “as they engage in the forthcoming debate over the government’s role in supporting paid leave, it is important that conservatives understand they can do more than simply say ‘no’ to the Democrats’ proposal.”
In 2019, IWF’s staffer Hadley Heath Manning spoke about paid leave at the annual meeting of the Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the controversial group where corporate lobbyists and special interest groups like Koch’s Americans for Prosperity vote as equals with state legislators on model bills. Manning urged state legislators to back IWF’s proposal and conceded that its plan was designed to counter the momentum of the Family Act, the predecessor bill incorporated in President Biden’s BBB proposal.
Privatizing Social Security has long been on the agenda of IWF/V and a shared goal of major Koch-funded groups. As IWF president Carrie Lukas wrote in right-wing tabloid The Federalist in 2018, “This approach could encourage an important mental shift with lasting implications for government’s safety nets more broadly. This could include how Americans think about Social Security, which has long been considered the untouchable third rail of politics.”
So why is IWF using a mainstream news magazine to claim the BBB’s paid leave proposal would undermine Social Security when its own plan actually takes money out of the Social Security Trust Fund for potentially decades?
IWF is a documented pay-to-play group. It has a history of attacking efforts to regulate vaping without disclosing that it was funded by Juul. One of its op-eds in USA Today even had to be corrected to disclose such funding after the American Heart Association objected. As we detailed above, it has also opposed efforts to address climate change and it has long ties to the fossil fuel industry, including the Koch fortune and funds through the fracking industry.
A sizeable portion of IWF’s most recent funding is obscured by DonorsTrust, often referred to as the rightwing’s “dark money ATM.” Between 2011 and 2019, IWF received over $3.4M from sources hidden from the public through DonorsTrust. In 2020, DonorsTrust described its secretly-funded Growth and Resilience project as aiding IWF’s opposition to a paid leave policy during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.
IWF’s pay-to-play dynamic appears to lead to confusing outcomes like Shapiro’s article in Newsweek expressing concern about Social Security, effectively a self-rebuttal of the “Social Security Paid Leave” framework she developed in 2018, which IWF/V has used to give Republicans cover to opposing the Family Act.
BBB Would Not Increase the National Debt
Shapiro also hammers the price tag of the BBB plan, but in reality the $3.5 trillion figure is the price over the next 10 years, and it is funded through other cuts like clawing back some of the billionaire tax cuts IWF/V trumpeted as Trump signed into law what Charles Koch called a “once-in-a-generation” opportunity to cut taxes on his family’s riches. Put into context, the BBB spending would account for just over one percent of the U.S. economy over the next decade.
And, unlike the Trump tax cuts for the rich, which IWF heavily supported despite how it has fueled the federal budget deficit, BBB is an investment in all Americans, that would be offset by taxes on the wealthiest few, many of whom have seen their net worth skyrocket during the pandemic. What the American people could get in return from this investment—paid leave, universal pre-K, and vital subsidies for childcare expenses—is immeasurably valuable to family well-being and the economic and emotional health of American society.
It is time to think big. At a time when millions of Americans are struggling, the Biden administration's BBB plan does that. In the view of True North Research, it is a monumental investment in the health and well-being of American families and individuals. IWF/V is far from credible, in our view, given its pay-to-play history and record of misleading claims.
Speaking of misleading claims, check out what happened around the federal holiday last week:
IWF’s misleading claims about history, climate, and more remind us of this classic song by Sam Cooke. #ThanksIWF but no thanks…
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