Saturday’s New York Times and much of our local media have been calling attention to the amazing amount of money that Mike Bloomberg is spending on his reelection campaign. In the end, he will spend between $100 million and $150 million on his personal stimulus program for New York’s political consultant and media industry. He will outspend his opponent, NYC Comptroller Bill Thompson, by more than 15 to 1. New York’s good government groups lament the impact of money on politics and are providing predictable quotes for familiar-looking news stories. The Thompson campaign is trying to combine Bloomberg’s spending with the term limits repeal to portray the mayor as a power-hungry, out of touch Upper East Side billionaire. We are reminded, once again, that the Mayor is very wealthy. But New Yorkers already know that, and in my view Thompson’s attack misses the point. The fundamental issue is the role of money in our political process. Bloomberg’s spending is a symptom of that problem, but it is not the cause.
The problem is that American democracy has never been overly democratic. Vermont’s 600,000 or so people elect the same number of Senators as New York’s 19,000,000. However, these days the problem with our system of representation is less one of geographic bias than of the power of economic interests. Economic power is projected by direct lobbying in today’s complex legislative process and by corporate campaign contributions to elected officials. President Obama recently blasted the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers for opposing the climate and energy bills before Congress. Why should the President care about the views of those business groups? He was elected by a large majority and his party controls both Houses of Congress. He cares because he knows that his election was made possible by two anomalies unique to the 2008 election. The first was the Wall Street crash that appeared to be out of control in the weeks before the election. American business was in a state of panic and the McCain ticket, especially with Palin on it, seemed riskier than Obama and Biden. The second was Obama’s remarkable success in raising money from small online contributions. Obama was able to out-fundraise the Republicans and negate the usual advantage of wealth and economic power in American politics.
It is of course silly to believe that people with economic power would not use that power to advance their own interests in the political system. Every regulation ever created to control the role of money in politics is closely followed by an army of lawyers looking for loopholes. Economic power is like a stream flowing down a mountain; gravity alone can bring it to where it wants to go. If you make it difficult for this power to be expressed legitimately, some power brokers will still manage to achieve their goals illegally.
But not Mike Bloomberg. The problem with the current state of campaign finance law is that decent, civic-minded people like our Mayor are not only allowed to spend as much of their own money as they can, but the system actually encourages it. If you are a prudent, competent public servant, convinced that your election is in the public interest, failing to spend your own money on your own cause seems idiotic. With $16 billion in the bank, one could spend $200 million and barely notice that it’s gone. However, if it was illegal to spend your own money on a campaign, I know that Mike Bloomberg would not spend his.
As scary as Bloomberg’s spending might be for democracy, the fundraising conflicts of interest by the non-billionaires running for office in NYC is even worse. Comptroller Thompson takes money from people in the investment and finance industry even though he runs the city’s pension system, and City Councilman de Blasio takes campaign money from the same nonprofits he helped to secure city funding. These two guys are among the most honest, incorruptible elected officials you will ever find, but to compete in this electoral system, candidates have to become part-time public servants and full-time fundraisers.
The root of all this evil is in a well-known 1976 Supreme Court case called Buckley vs. Valeo. In that case:
“…the Court found that the expenditure ceiling in the FECA (Federal Election Campaign Act) imposed “direct and substantial restraints on the quantity of political speech” and invalidated three expenditure limitations as violations of the First Amendment.”
In a ruling that makes democracy a cash-and-carry operation, the Court decided that campaign contributions were a form of free speech. There are probably good libertarian and even free speech arguments for allowing people to spend their own money to promote their own views. But the impact of this ruling, coupled with the escalating costs of modern political campaigning, has been to elevate the importance of money in politics to an absurd level.
The spectacle of a wealthy man spending his own money in a legal effort to stay in office makes for a good, entertaining news story. But all the whining changes nothing. The fundamental problem is that as long as we equate campaign spending with free speech, it will not be possible to control the impact of money in our political process. Bloomberg’s money is not the real problem. His contributions are upfront and visible for all to see. The real problem is the quiet, constant cash campaign contributions of businesses ranging from the health care industry to oil companies. These companies are working overtime, but out of the media spotlight, to influence public policy. The President will only get health and climate bills enacted this year if he is able to overcome these powerful economic forces. That’s the real money and politics story going on right now. The Mayoral election in New York City is just a sideshow.