Las Vegas Sun

December 27, 2014

Currently: 45° — Complete forecast | Log in | Create an account

OTHER VOICES:

Using (and reforming) the system

Another view?

View more of the Las Vegas Sun's opinion section:

Editorials - the Sun's viewpoint.

Columnists - local and syndicated writers.

Letters to the editor - readers' views.

Have your own opinion? Write a letter to the editor.

If you are tired of seeing the debate on guns dominated by the National Rifle Association and yearn for sensible weapons laws, you have to love New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. When most politicians were caving in or falling silent, there was Bloomberg, wielding his fortune to keep hope alive that we could move against the violence that blights our nation.

But imagine that you also believe the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision was a disaster for representative government because a narrow majority broke with long precedent and tore down the barriers to corporate money in politics. The decision also encouraged the super rich to drop any inhibitions about using their wealth to push their own political agendas.

When it comes to policy, I fall into both of these camps — pro-Bloomberg on guns, but anti-Citizens United. And so I have been pondering the issue of consistency or, as some would see it, hypocrisy.

Put aside that the hypocrisy question is rarely raised against those who defend unlimited contributions except when the big bucks are wielded against them. Can I be grateful for what Bloomberg is doing and still loathe Citizens United? I say: yes.

Are opponents of Citizens United and the new super PAC world required to disown those who use their wealth to fight for causes we believe in? I say: no.

To begin with, even before Citizens United, the regulations on “issue advertising” — most of what Bloomberg is doing now — were quite permissive for activities outside the period shortly before elections. The Supreme Court’s 1976 Buckley decision had already given wealthy individuals such as Bloomberg a great deal of leeway.

And unlike those who donate large amounts anonymously, Bloomberg is entirely open about what he’s up to. He is simply offsetting the political might of the arms manufacturers.

Supporters of universal background checks along with bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines simply cannot be asked to repudiate the help they need to face down the power of the gun lobby.

To put it in an unvarnished way, I’m glad some members of Congress will have to think about whether enraging Bloomberg is more dangerous than angering the NRA. And his advertising serves to remind politicians inclined to yield to the gun lobby that their constituents support universal background checks by margins of around 9-to-1.

The Supreme Court has stuck us with an unsavory choice. If the only moneyed people giving to politics are pushing for policies that favor the wealthy, we really will become an oligarchy. For now, their pile of dough needs to be answered by progressive rich people who think oligarchy is a bad idea.

But playing the game as it’s now set up should not blind anyone to how flawed its rules are. Politics should not be reduced to a contest between liberal rich people and conservative rich people. A donor derby tilts politics away from the interests and concerns of the vast majority of Americans who aren’t wealthy and can’t write checks of a size that get their phone calls returned automatically. A Citizens United world makes government less responsive, less representative and more open to corruption.

That’s why many who welcome the continued political engagement of President Barack Obama’s campaign organization are nonetheless concerned about its dependence on big-dollar givers. This creates a troubling model that other politicians are certain to follow. It would be far better if Obama concentrated primarily on building off the pioneering work his campaigns did in rallying small donors.

This points to the larger danger for those who tout their tough-mindedness about using the current system for progressive purposes while still claiming to be reformers: Politicians are growing so comfortable with the status quo that they have largely given up on trying to change it.

Two who haven’t are Reps. David Price, D-N.C., and Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., sponsors of the Empowering Citizens Act. It would provide a 5-to-1 match from public funds for contributions of $250 or less, thus establishing strong incentives for politicians to rely on smaller donors while offering the rest of us a fighting chance against the billionaires. Harnessed to new technologies, this approach could vastly expand the number of citizens who are regular contributors. Until Citizens United is overturned, as it should be, the best way out of our dilemma is to democratize the money game.

So, yes, let’s cheer for Mike Bloomberg. But let’s also insist on creating a system in which we will no longer need his money.

E.J. Dionne is a columnist for the Washington Post.

Join the Discussion:

Check this out for a full explanation of our conversion to the LiveFyre commenting system and instructions on how to sign up for an account.

Full comments policy

Previous Discussion: 1 comments so far…

Comments are moderated by Las Vegas Sun editors. Our goal is not to limit the discussion, but rather to elevate it. Comments should be relevant and contain no abusive language. Comments that are off-topic, vulgar, profane or include personal attacks will be removed. Full comments policy. Additionally, we now display comments from trusted commenters by default. Those wishing to become a trusted commenter need to verify their identity or sign in with Facebook Connect to tie their Facebook account to their Las Vegas Sun account. For more on this change, read our story about how it works and why we did it.

Only trusted comments are displayed on this page. Untrusted comments have expired from this story.

  1. Mr. Dionne missed this recent news story:

    "Bloomberg Buys Illinois Congressional Seat: .. their Representative to Congress was purchased by a New York, former Republican, Independent...Robin Kelly, a former treasurer and state legislator, won the Democrat Primary for the seat vacated by Jesse Jackson Jr. (who resigned in disgrace after being caught with his hand in the cookie jar). Kelly won the right to represent her party in the March Special election by a substantial margin over the various other contenders, most notably former Representative Debbie Halverson, her closest competitor. Halverson pulled down only 25% of the votes to Kelly's 52%. Kelly and Halverson both gave credit for Kelly's overwhelming victory to New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg whose Super PAC spent some $2.2 million promoting Kelly and bashing Halverson."

    Carmine D