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Free Speech, Especially For Harry

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid can say whatever he wants about the Koch brothers - literally.

The Nevada Democrat is protected by the Constitution’s speech or debate clause as long as he speaks during a legislative session. He is constrained by neither fairness, nor facts nor, should it come to that, even the minimal constraints that the courts apply to defamatory statements about public officials and figures.

That’s OK. Sort of. The Koch brothers have chosen to participate, very actively and often quite cogently, in the public debate about the direction of this country’s policies and the role and scope of its government. Regardless of how much money they have, they enjoy the same right to do so as any of us. It’s just that, as leaders of a sprawling business enterprise that provides jobs and security for tens of thousands of people, their opinions count for somewhat more than those of other people, including me. Or, one might argue, Harry Reid. The Kochs are big boys. They can stick up for themselves.

But it is still repulsive to see Reid, who is fighting to retain his influential post as majority leader after this year’s election, resort to vilifying private citizens for exercising their free-speech rights from his immunized perch on Capitol Hill. In a floor speech last week, Reid accused the Koch brothers of being one of the main causes of climate change and, in a follow-up statement from his spokesman Adam Jentleson, claimed they “want free rein to pollute as much as they want.” This is the latest in a long series of such claims Reid has lobbed their way.

We have seen this sort of bullying by elected representatives many times before. It never makes us feel good about the people we send to Congress. They pick their target of convenience - bankers, or purported communists, or auto executives, or athletes accused of using performance enhancers, or industrialists who support their political opposition - and take their shots, knowing they cannot be called to account except at the polls.

Reid seldom feels constrained by the facts, whether it is in his false claims in 2012 that Mitt Romney had paid no federal income taxes in some years (Romney subsequently released information showing that he had), or in his recent assertions that the Koch companies are the “champions” of emissions linked to climate change. The Washington Post’s fact checker, Glenn Kessler, gave the claim three Pinocchios on a scale of four. In Kessler’s view, Reid’s claim did not quite reach the “whopper” status needed for that last Pinocchio, but qualified as having “significant factual error and/or obvious contradiction.”

The Kochs can defend themselves, and they do. Charles Koch wrote an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal in April, addressing some of the common accusations leveled at him, his brother and their business, and disputing the basic facts underpinning the allegations. Reid’s vitriol reflects most poorly on himself.

Maybe Reid is just so worried about climate change that he can’t help getting overexcited when he talks about the Kochs. That would be easier to believe, though, if Reid were not the person primarily responsible for getting President Obama to cancel the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste disposal facility five years ago. With no place to dispose of waste, it is hard to support the increased use of nuclear power, which would be a major step toward reducing carbon emissions from generating plants. Five years later, the administration - and Reid - still have not identified anywhere else to put the waste. Harry Reid could talk about that on the Senate floor, if he wanted.

I wouldn’t hold my breath. The Constitution permits Reid to say anything he likes about anyone he doesn’t, and right now, Harry Reid really doesn’t like the Kochs.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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