More Money, More Problems for Democracy

Countering private campaign funding with public campaign funding is the most viable way to limit the political influence of the wealthy.

Opinion, NYT editorial board

February 1, 2020

There is a straight line from the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in the Citizens United case to a dinner party the president attended at the Trump International Hotel in Washington in April 2018.

The dinner has attracted attention because Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman — associates of President Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph Giuliani — took the opportunity to press Mr. Trump to remove Marie Yovanovitch as the American ambassador to Ukraine as part of a plan to make money from natural gas. That, in turn, is part of the larger saga that has resulted in Mr. Trump’s impeachment for his later efforts to compel Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden.

But the dinner also provides a clear view of the ways in which the wealthy seek to influence politicians and politicians gather donations, particularly in the wake of Citizens United. That ruling, handed down almost exactly 10 years ago, allows corporations to spend freely on electioneering, provided the money is not given directly to a candidate or a political party. It is the most famous in a set of recent Supreme Court rulings that have made it far easier for wealthy individuals and corporations to translate their economic power into political power.

The economic inequalities of modern America increasingly are manifest in our politics, too.

At the dinner, donors willing to spend lavishly in support of Mr. Trump’s re-election had the chance to seek the president’s help in placing their own interests above the public interest.

A billionaire whose steel-making company donated $1.75 million to secure his place urged the president to tighten restrictions on steel imports and to let truck drivers work longer hours.

The owner of a trucking company complained that his biggest problem was the need to even have drivers. He sought the president’s support for a 500-mile highway for self-driving trucks.

An executive at an Ohio company that makes natural gas engines argued that natural gas engines deserved the same regulatory leniencies as electric engines, which generate less pollution.

Politicians have always needed money, and wealthy patrons have always found ways to provide it in exchange for special consideration of their needs. “There are two things that are important in politics,” Senator Mark Hanna said more than a century ago. “The first is money, and I can’t remember what the second one is.”

In recent decades, however, a pair of intertwined developments have magnified the influence of money on politics: The rich keep getting richer, and the Supreme Court has made it much easier for politicians to tap that wealth. The result is an arms race that leaves politicians ever more beholden to funders.

The Supreme Court effectively has taken over the work of regulating campaign finance by striking down congressional efforts to restrict money in politics and substituting more permissive standards. The first such decision, Buckley v. Valeo, in 1976, held that election spending is a form of constitutionally protected free speech, although it permitted some restrictions to prevent corruption. Under Chief Justice John Roberts, who was installed in 2005, the court has issued a series of rulings significantly expanding what counts as free speech while simultaneously restricting what can be done to prevent corruption.

In Citizens United, the court struck down restrictions on election spending by corporations and unions, leaving only flimsy prohibitions on giving the money to a candidate or taking instructions from a candidate. The court justified this stance by defining political corruption narrowly — as quid pro quo arrangements in which donations effectively purchase desired political outcomes — and then concluding that the protections it had preserved were sufficient.

Mr. Trump, whose administration has been shaped by his willingness to stretch the law, is providing an object lesson in the consequences of the court’s capacious standards. There’s no reason to think the April 2018 dinner was an unusual event.

The unusual part is only that it was taped by one of the supplicants, Mr. Fruman. The guests were donors or potential donors to America First Action SuperPAC, a political organization with no legal ties to Mr. Trump that still managed to obtain more than an hour of the single most valuable commodity in Washington: the president’s time.

Such super PACs are vehicles for complying with the letter of the law by maintaining the legal fiction that their spending is not controlled by any particular politician or party, while still allowing donors to feel confident that the money will be used for a specific purpose and that the beneficiaries — but often not the general public — will know who deserves their thanks.

Barry Zekelman, the billionaire who spoke with Mr. Trump about steel making, is a Canadian who does not hold American citizenship and therefore cannot legally make donations to American politicians or to super PACs. Instead, Wheatland Tube, an American company that Mr. Zekelman partly owns, donated the $1.75 million to America First Action.

Mr. Zekelman complained to Mr. Trump that mandatory rest breaks for truck drivers made it harder to move his steel pipes to market — and also that they might force a driver to pull over when the driver was close to home. Mr. Trump expressed surprise that the government could enforce such a rule. “They have a method that you shut down a truck?” he asked. “Wow.”

The conversation does not meet the Supreme Court’s narrow definition of corruption, but it would be naïve to pretend that such interactions do not influence the judgments of politicians.

The political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page presented evidence in a 2017 book, “Democracy in America?,” that the wealthiest Americans exercise disproportionate influence, and are particularly successful in blocking even broadly popular policies they don’t like.

Nearly 5,000 Americans died in accidents involving large trucks in 2018, and the annual death toll from such accidents is up by 17 percent since 2008. Allowing drivers to work longer hours, as Mr. Zekelman suggested, would be likely to make matters worse. Studies show that driver fatigue is a frequent factor in fatal crashes. But the families of the victims haven’t paid enough to dine with the president.

Since the dinner, the Trump administration has proposed easing the rest break rules, and congressional Republicans have introduced legislation to exempt smaller trucking firms. Mr. Trump also has continued his efforts to protect steel makers from foreign competition.

Citizens United is bad law. Limits on corporate political spending are a necessary and legitimate check on the economic power the government grants by letting businesses incorporate. But there is little prospect the court will reverse the decision in the foreseeable future, and proponents of a constitutional amendment have a very long road to travel.

Moreover, the problem is broader than Citizens United. Some guests at Mr. Trump’s dinner party made personal donations to America First Action, which could remain legal even if there were limits on corporate donations. The largest political donors in the United States in the 2018 midterm elections were Sheldon Adelson, a casino magnate and big fan of Israel’s right-wing government, and his wife, Miriam Adelson, who together gave $123.7 million.

And the presidential candidacies of the billionaires Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer offer a valuable reminder that even limits on individual donations would not entirely suffice, because billionaires still would be able to fund their own candidacies. Mr. Bloomberg already has spent more than twice as much on his own 2020 campaign as Mr. Adelson spent during the 2018 campaign — including $11 million to air a one-minute ad during the Super Bowl.

The best path forward, therefore, is to limit the influence of wealth by allowing candidates to tap other sources of financial support. The federal government offers funding to presidential candidates, but the system is virtually defunct because it imposes spending limits, and major candidates can raise much more money from private sources.

The House passed a bill last year that would create a system of matching public funding for presidential and congressional candidates. A companion bill is backed by all 47 Senate Democrats. Instead of matching contributions dollar for dollar, the legislation would match each dollar from a private donor, up to $200, with $6 in public funding, up to $1,200. That could allow candidates to run competitively without relying on big donors. It would not prevent billionaires from sponsoring political candidates, but it could allow candidates to run without such sponsorship, and to let voters choose accordingly.

Disclosure is crucial, too: A legal loophole allows political nonprofits to conceal the identities of donors. The Supreme Court has suggested that stronger disclosure requirements would be legal. Congressional Republicans have repeatedly blocked such common-sense changes.

The weight of wealth can seem like an overwhelming force, but there is reason for hope. Consider the example of Seattle, which gave registered voters $100 in “democracy vouchers” to donate to local candidates in its City Council elections last year. The public funding did not come close to matching the spending by third parties, notably Amazon. The giant retailer spent $1.5 million, while city funding for each candidate was capped at $150,000. But it was enough to help several candidates win seats over Amazon’s opposition.

Dan Strauss, one of the new members of the Council, said public funding made his candidacy viable. “I don’t have a rich network of rich friends,” he told a local publication. But “I was able to go to everyday people and say, ‘I need a hundred bucks from you.’”

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