Anyone who’s followed the political career of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg knows he’s a great one for telling other people what to do and how to live. An ex-smoker, he declared war on cigarettes and banned the “Big Gulp” and other large, carry-out soft drinks because he believed they contributed to obesity, raising the cost of public health initiatives. And, despite spending millions on efforts to keep everyday Americans from exercising their Second Amendment rights, he’s usually accompanied by an armed security detail.
The privilege of being at the top of the heap of “one-percenters” apparently allows you to write your own rules, or so Mr. Bloomberg seems to think. He certainly tried when he sought to buy his way into the Democratic race for president by spending close to half a billion dollars on television spots and other efforts. He was ultimately unsuccessful in pursuit of the party’s nomination, but he still caused an upheaval in the race before quitting.
Even though he’s out, he’s still making things difficult. The most recent turn is his announcement that, rather than establish a SuperPAC as promised to spend money on efforts to bounce Donald Trump out of the White House and restore Democratic majorities in the U.S. Senate and state legislatures throughout America, he’s just going to transfer $18 million out of his presidential campaign account to the Democratic National Committee’s.
It’s perfectly legal — but it’s highly questionable. Under current law, even after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the Citizens United Case, Mr. Bloomberg could not give $18 million directly to the DNC. It would be against the law for him to do so. But his campaign committee can — even if all the money in its coffers came from him in the first place.
It’s a loophole in the campaign finance system no one appears to have found until now — and one about which the Democrats would almost assuredly scream bloody murder if a Republican were to try it. It’s the kind of play that runs afoul of just about every campaign finance reform proposal put forward in Congress and by the various Democrats who at one time or another were running for president over the last year.
Brad Smith, the former chairman of the U.S. Federal Elections Commission, said Mr. Bloomberg’s move “illustrates again the silliness of our campaign finance laws, and how they tend to benefit wealthy donors and well-financed campaigns that can hire the lawyers, accountants, and consultants to game the system. In this case, it guarantees more billionaire candidates, who will run, deposit money into their own campaigns, drop out, and transfer their campaign money to political parties.”
Don’t count on the usual suspects to complain when they do. DNC Chairman Tom Perez, who’s made railing against the role played by so-called dark money and billionaires in politics a virtual part of his stump speech, welcomed the contribution. “With this transfer from the Bloomberg campaign, Mayor Bloomberg and his team are making good on their commitment to beating Donald Trump,” he said in a statement. “This will help us invest in more organizers across the country to elect the next president and help Democrats win up and down the ballot.”
He’s not exaggerating. As part of the deal with the DNC, Mr. Bloomberg will also make it possible to transfer campaign field offices his campaign set up with his money to local state Democratic parties as in-kind contributions. Again, perfectly legal but well outside the spirit of the laws Democrats say are necessary to cleanse the evil from American politics.
The bottom line, says Mr. Smith, now the Josiah H. Blackmore II/Shirley M. Nault Professor of Law at Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio, “is that ultimately you can’t stop people from spending their own money to voice their political views. Trying to do so makes the system less fair, not fairer, and rewards rather than hinders the wealthiest interests.”
There are no limits on self-funders nor should there be. The Supreme Court is right when it says money, as expressed by political donations, equals speech. Indeed, we sometimes question whether there should be any limits at all and certainly do not favor former Vice President Joe Biden’s suggestion, made as recently as last week’s debate, that the influence of money in politics be eliminated through a system that uses tax dollars to pay for presidential and congressional contests. But what Mr. Bloomberg and Mr. Perez are doing is, at the very best, hypocritical. Their arrangement runs counter to most everything they’ve said about the need for campaign finance reform. They should be called on it and we are happy to do so.
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