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Posted by on Jun 14, 2012 in Business, Economy, Law, Media | 16 comments

Billionaires Against Billionaires

WASHINGTON — For those who believe money already has too much power in American politics, 2012 will be a miserable year. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, lassitude at the Federal Election Commission and the growing audacity of very rich conservatives have created a new political system that will make the politics of the Gilded Age look like a clean government paradise.

Americans won’t even fully know what’s happening to them because so much can be donated in secrecy to opaque organizations. It’s always helpful for voters to know who is trying to buy an election, and for whom. This time, much of the auction will be held in private. You can be sure that the candidates will find out who helped elect them, but the voters will remain in the dark.

We do know that the playing field this year is tilted sharply to the right. Journalists often focus on the world of rich liberals in places such as Hollywood and Silicon Valley. But there are even more conservative millionaire and billionaire donors who hail from less mediagenic places. There is, for example, a lot of oil money in Texas. Then there’s Wall Street. Once a bountiful source of Democratic as well as Republican cash, it has shifted toward the party of Mitt Romney, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell. And then there’s Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, whose $10 million donation to the super PAC supporting Romney was reported Wednesday.

Republicans argue that turnabout is fair play. Barack Obama shunned the public financing system in 2008 and vastly outspent John McCain. Democrats, they say, are complaining now because they are at a disadvantage.

That’s at best half right.

It’s true that Obama struck a blow against public financing, though the system was insufficiently financed and would eventually have collapsed under its own weight. And four years ago, Obama filled his coffers through the regulated system that limited the size of contributions and required disclosure. This year, there are no guardrails, no limits on what can be raised and spent. A remarkably small number of very wealthy people will be able to do what hasn’t been done for generations.

And their influence will be especially large in congressional races where the outside groups can swamp what the candidates themselves spend. Those who claim that this is all about free speech need to explain how speech is free when one side can buy the microphone and can set the terms of debate, especially in contests below the presidential level.

What is to be done? The IRS could and should crack down on political committees legally disguised as “charities.” The Federal Election Commission and Congress could promote disclosure. The Supreme Court could undo its error, or we could do it by embarking on the cumbersome process of amending the Constitution. Ultimately, we need to democratize the money chase by providing, say, 5-to-1 public matches for small donations.

But it’s highly unlikely that any of this will happen before November, so here is a modest proposal: A small group of billionaires, aided perhaps by a few super millionaires, should form an alliance to offset the spending of the other billionaires and super millionaires. They might call themselves Billionaires Against Billionaire Politics. These public-spirited citizens would announce that they will match every penny raised by the various super PACs on the other side.

In principle, they could commit themselves to balancing off whichever side — conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat — is dominating the airwaves and the fundraising. The idea would be to destroy the incentives for the very rich to buy the election. If shrewd wealthy people realized that every $10 million they put up would be met immediately by $10 million from the other side, they might lose interest in the exercise.

As a practical matter, it’s conservative dollars that need to be offset, so this balancing act would likely be financed by non-conservatives. George Soros, Warren Buffett and New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg come to mind. But there may be other, less high-profile wealthy folks who want to do their patriotic bit. The hope is that this would be a one-shot deal. After one nuclear winter of an election, rich partisans could agree to mutual disarmament.

It’s preposterous that our system has handed over so much power to those with large fortunes that the only way to get matters under control is to have one group of rich people check the power of another group of rich people. Maybe the absurdity of it all will finally force the Supreme Court and Congress to bring us back to something more reasonable. It’s called democracy.

E.J. Dionne’s email address is [email protected](c) 2012, Washington Post Writers Group

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Copyright 2012 The Moderate Voice
  • Rcoutme

    Not anymore, it’s no longer called democracy (not if one understands democratic republics).

  • Dr. J

    Those who claim that this is all about free speech need to explain how speech is free when one side can buy the microphone and can set the terms of debate, especially in contests below the presidential level.

    And those who ask questions like this need to explain how they manage to draw salaries for writing such bald nonsense.

    Obviously no one can “buy the microphone.” There are a score of radio stations, a hundred TV channels, a thousand print publications, ten thousand billboards, and a million tweets. There are all the fliers you care to mail, all the videos you care to upload, all the emails you care to send, and all the blog articles you care to write. If your message isn’t getting out, it’s not because someone else has cornered all the communication channels.

    As for the quest to find billionaires willing to spend big bucks to argue “the other side” of whatever issues come up so that we can “get matters under control,” well, good luck with that, EJ. It’s curious that you assume there are only two sides, and that getting matters under your control (or the control of someone who agrees with you) is what democracy is all about.

  • Scorp

    It’s interesting how Mr. Dionne’s idea goes from a “modest proposal” in the start of the article to “the only way” (maybe he should have said “our only hope”?) by the end without one bit of proof in between.

  • zephyr

    I think EJ is being a little tongue in cheek with the my billionaire can beat up your billionaire, but the plutocratic trend we are in the midst of is real and is clearly not in the best interests of a government that was created to represent the interests of it’s people. What is more it is incredibly naive to believe otherwise. The CU decision was partisan and horribly irresponsible. I daresay the founders would have found it treasonous.

  • The_Ohioan

    I hadn’t realized that radio and TV ads, billboards, print publications, and fliers can be produced free of money. What’s the big fuss about, anyway?

    In case that’s wrong, maybe we can have another shoot out at an OK Corall; say Madison Square Garden – $10,000 at 10 paces. The winners get to write all the new laws for the next 2 years.

    The participants would have to prove that they have the money and that they know how to use it to affect law making, of course, that’s a given.

  • Dr. J

    I hadn’t realized that radio and TV ads, billboards, print publications, and fliers can be produced free of money.

    The large-scale ways to lobby voters obviously cost money; no one claimed otherwise. How is it that no one on the left seems to be able to argue their side of this issue without resorting to distortions like the above, or EJ’s obvious rubbish about “buying the microphone”?

  • slamfu

    Zeph, I doubt the founding fathers would have found it treasonous. After all they set things up so that only landowners even had a vote at first.

    And for Dr. J, I just don’t see how you can’t see the very unbalancing nature of allowing unlimited and anonymous cash donations for political causes. That is a direct recipe for the hijacking of the process. And you don’t have to buy ALL the radio. First off, you only need to really sink your money into swing states during the critical times of the election. That sharply reduces the total amount you need to dominate the advertising in order to swing an election. Also you just need to outspend your rivals.

    There is nothing wrong with limits. Its how things are made fair. You seem to see some slippery slope where if we put reasonable limits on something easily quantifiable like dollars spent, somehow we are going to have 1st amendment limits on actual speech. Say Sheldon Adelson wants to donate $100 Million this year, which he can easily afford to do. That makes his voice 1 million times that of a mere $100 donor. This is fair? This doesn’t throw vastly more political influence to one citizen over another? This is so obvious I don’t even know how to make my case.

  • Dr. J

    Slam, to make the case you have to show that what you describe as hijacking is both a real outcome and a bad one in a more objective sense than being unfair. And that regulation would be better. Imho all three are matters of serious dispute.

    I don’t think hijacking is a real outcome, whiich is to say I don’t believe spending largely determines electoral outcomes. It’s easy to point to correlations you don’t like, but that doesn’t show causality. Sure, the right outspent the left in WI, but it’s crazy to claim the left’s case went unargued after the the huge amount of national media coverage over the past year. The very fact that you talk about “swing states” illustrates how immovable electoral outcomes really are.

    To the extent spending influences outcomes, I don’t agree it’s unfair, or that fairness is even a useful concept for judging it. Policies that favor more people or more acute needs should tend to win, and think in general they will be able to get more money behind them. Again given the nationwide power struggle playing out in WI, I don’t see how anyone can claim the right’s position represents only a few billionaires.

  • DaGoat

    The whole issue of fairness in influencing elections is kind of curious. If one person spends a week knocking on doors or working a phone bank, and another person works for a week then uses the money to buy advertising, is one being unfair and the other not?

  • Dr. J

    A great question, DaGoat. I hope you get a few answers.

  • The_Ohioan


    Not. The person knocking and phoning can only reach the number he/she can physically (or telephonically) make contact with. Probably less contact than that of an advertisement with a cost of the weeks income (how much income? $1,000? $100,000? $1……?). No matter what, advertising is probably going to reach more people. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

  • zephyr

    A little common sense here please. Govt by auction is NOT in the interest of govt by of and for the people. To the extent the USSC threw the auction doors wide open they showed just how much contempt they (not including the dissenters) have for the American public. What they did was unforgiveable.

  • Dr. J

    TO, advertisers pay attention to how many people an ad reaches, and also to how much impact the ad has on their behavior. Talking to someone in person will have much more impact than exposing them to a slogan on a billboard.

    Impact of ads is notoriously hard to measure, and it’s a central question in this debate. How many TV ads does it take to talk a union worker out of his pension?

  • DaGoat

    What I was getting at is the political strength of both voices in my example are multiplied by the fruits of their labors. Since I just sat around on my butt, both of their voices are much “louder” than mine. That gives both of them more political influence than me, and that’s not fair.

  • The_Ohioan

    Dr J

    Talking to someone in person (one on one, not a rally) will probably have more impact than an ad, but that scenario is limited in a national election – except in Iowa and New Hampshire – and may still be lessened by ads viewed later. It may be unfair that one party has enough people to knock on doors and unfair that the other party has enough money to do more ads, but each will try to correct any imbalance if they are serious about winning. How effective they are decides elections.

    I’ve never seen an ad that tries to talk a union worker out of his pension. I would think it wouldn’t be very effective. Perhaps you could be more specific?

    Tomes have been written about the effect of advertising on the electorate. I’m sure one of them could give some idea of their efficacy.

    DG has clarified his position in that those who try to affect voters have an unfair advantage over those who don’t. I wouldn’t begin to know how to address that vision of fairness.

  • Dr. J

    I’ve never seen an ad that tries to talk a union worker out of his pension. I would think it wouldn’t be very effective. Perhaps you could be more specific?

    You haven’t? How about ads trying to talk liberals out of supporting teachers? Or conservatives into supporting tax increases and defense cuts?

    Surely, if billionaires are out there buying electoral outcomes, ads must be able to change someone’s mind about something.

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