The Rich Get Richer

By David Lebedoff
Tuesday, June 26, 2007; 6:48 PM

He was not even party to the case, but the biggest winner in Monday's Supreme Court decision on campaign-finance law may be New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. If he decides to run for president, the decision could provide an enormous advantage to his campaign.

As a billionaire, of course, Bloomberg already has advantages few other candidates have. And in one sense, the decision changes nothing -- Bloomberg was free to spend a few hundred million dollars of his own money on his campaign before Monday, and he is free to do so now. But one result of the decision could be that Bloomberg will have control over more of the money spent on his behalf than any other candidate for president.

A quick election-law primer: Anyone can spend as much money as he or she wishes on his candidacy. But there is a limit to how much a person can contribute to a campaign; currently, it is $2,300 per election cycle. The amount is not very high -- the point is to limit the power of rich contributors.

On Monday, however, the Supreme Court carved out an exception to this limit: With an election upcoming, corporations and labor unions can spend as much as they want on commercials that talk about a political candidate, either favorably or negatively, as long as they don't specifically ask the viewer to vote for or against the candidate in the ad. Thanks to previous decisions, equally absurd, this right also belongs to so-called issue groups.

So: No individual can give more than $2,300 to a candidate. But corporations, labor unions and issue groups can spend hundreds of millions on commercials praising or lambasting any candidate they want. Not only that, the candidates themselves have no control -- they are not allowed to have any control -- over how this money is spent.

That's the craziest aspect of this exception to campaign finance law. Pretend you are a candidate. Someone can take out an ad on your behalf, but you can't help them prepare it. You can't tell them what you want to say or how you want to say it. You can't coordinate ad buys or schedules. You can't even know about it before it airs.

The result is that the debate has been taken out of the hands of the candidates. Almost all the ads are bought by labor unions, corporations and issue groups. And these ads inevitably distort the issues, because all these groups have single-issue axes to grind, and the axe is not a subtle weapon.

The forgotten people in this process -- the candidates themselves -- can raise money from individuals in relatively small amounts and buy their own ads. But their commercials are likely to get lost amid the din of unaccountable distortions made possible by bad legislation and worse judicial interpretation of it.

So what does all this have to do with Michael Bloomberg, you ask? Plenty. Individuals, remember, can spend as much of their own money as they want on their own campaign. Bloomberg is worth between $5 billion and $13 billion. If he wants to run for president and spend $500 million, or double that, he can. And if he does, he may be the only candidate in the race able to actually approve the vast majority of his own advertising. Groups will still be able to air advertisements for or against him -- or rather, discussing him positively or negatively -- but he will have more control over his message than most candidates.

Of course, the advantages of wealth existed before Monday. But with its decision in F.E.C. v. Wisconsin Right to Life, the Supreme Court may just have increased them. When all other candidates are at the mercy of zealous special interest groups -- even when the groups are on their side -- the candidate with the resources to shape his own message stands to gain. In 2008, only Michael Bloomberg may be able to run a rational campaign on the issues and in the tone of his choice.

David Lebedoff, a Minneapolis attorney, is author of "The Uncivil War: How a New Elite is Destroying Our Democracy." His book about George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh is forthcoming from Random House.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company