Billionaires Have Too Much Political Power

This shouldn’t be legal and, as you’ll see, it barely was legal:

Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson has cut a $30 million check to the House GOP-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund, a massive cash infusion that top Republicans hope will alter the party’s electoral outlook six months before Election Day.

The long-sought donation was sealed last week when, according to two senior Republicans, House Speaker Paul Ryan flew to Las Vegas to meet with the billionaire at his Venetian Hotel. Also at the meeting with Adelson was his wife, Miriam; Norm Coleman, the former Minnesota senator who chairs the Republican Jewish Coalition; Corry Bliss, who oversees the super PAC; and Jake Kastan, Ryan’s No. 2 political aide. They laid out a case to Adelson about how crucial it is to protect the House.

As a federally elected official, Ryan is not permitted to solicit seven-figure political donations. When Ryan (R-Wis.) left the room, Coleman made the ask and secured the $30 million contribution.

We have hard limits on how much money individuals can donate to candidates and there’s a reason for that. We don’t want some citizens to be more equal than others, and rich people already have many options for how they can wield undo influence in the corridors of power.

It makes a mockery of our campaign finance laws when a billionaire can throw 30 million dollars into our midterm elections on the side of one party. The fact that Speaker Paul Ryan had to step out of the room when the pitch was made demonstrates that there was something wrong with the transaction. Whether Ryan was in the room or listening outside the door should not define what is ethical and what is not.

The article makes clear that the GOP had long anticipated and was desperate to receive this infusion of cash from Adelson, and that is problematic because Adelson’s primary interest in politics is related to two things: his international casino empire and American foreign policy toward Israel.

He operates casinos in Singapore and Macau, which is as shady and dubious as it sounds:

Venetian Macao and Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands speak for themselves as extraordinary creations, reflecting favorably on their creator. Yet, it also seems utterly absurd that a guy in his 80s who can’t speak a word of Chinese and comes from Boston – further from Macau than any major city on earth except Buenos Aires – with a personality at least that far from Asian ideals such as humility and harmony, nevertheless remains the most powerful person in Asian gaming. Adelson’s status highlights his unique combination of vision and guts.

When Macau invited proposals for three casino licenses in November 2001, there were plenty of reasons to steer clear or, at the very least, hedge your bets. The local gaming business was populated by underworld figures known for gunfights on downtown streets in broad daylight. Macau’s gaming oversight wasn’t up to global standards, posing a threat to casino license holders in more advanced jurisdictions like Nevada and New Jersey, where MGM got into hot water over its Macau partner. Two years earlier, Portugal had handed Macau back to China, and, Beijing’s influence raised questions about the business climate for foreign investors.

As for Israel, there is nothing wrong with an American citizen having a concern about its security and future, but there does come a point where a private citizen can have too much influence over how American foreign policy is conducted. In 2012, Sheldon Adelson single-handedly bankrolled the candidacy of Newt Gingrich. When asked about this by Ted Koppel, Gingrich’s answer was succinct:

Koppel: There has to be a so-what at the end of it. So– if you win what does Adelson get out of it?

Gingrich. He knows I’m very pro Israel. That’s the central value of his life. I mean, he’s very worried that Israel is going to not survive.

It’s not going too far to argue that Adelson’s money distorted the way the 2012 Republican primaries unfolded. Without Adelson’s cash, Gingrich simply couldn’t have financed his travel let alone his advertising. He would have dropped out much earlier. In the end, he was the last candidate to withdraw from the race, on May 2. In 2016, Adelson adopted Marco Rubio as his pet candidate.

Adelson’s support of Israel isn’t generic. He supports the right wing in their politics, too. And you can see how central Iran is to his thinking from comments he made back in 2013. The Times of Israel reported on it at the time:

American Jewish billionaire Sheldon Adelson said the United States should detonate a nuclear bomb in the Iranian desert to display toughness, though without hurting a soul, before the next stage of negotiations with Tehran. It should then threaten that the next bomb would fall on Tehran, he said.

“What are we going to negotiate about?” Adelson told a crowd at New York’s Yeshiva University on Tuesday night.

Right now, I don’t want to debate the merits of the Iran nuclear deal. Maybe you support it, or maybe you think it was the worst deal ever negotiated. What I want you to think about is something else. When a political party becomes dependent on a single billionaire and desperate for his support and funding, and that billionaire has one issue that is, as Gingrich put it, “the central value of his life,” then that political party is going to be compelled to address that issue in the way the billionaire dictates.

In this case, it isn’t simply a desire that America remain a staunch ally of Israel and guarantor of their security. In this case, it’s a desire that America follow along with the right-wing politicians in Israel in their extreme hardline and warlike stance toward the Iranian government. Blowing up the nuclear deal is part of the deal, and it doesn’t matter if this causes a rift in the Trans-Atlantic alliance or leads to war or has any other negative or catastrophic consequences. Adelson wants the deal destroyed. The Republicans are desperate for his money. Therefore, they wind up losing the freedom to choose what policy to support.

Israel is a touchy issue, so maybe it’s best to think about a hypothetical case for any other country. We have laws about foreign governments donating or participating in our elections because we want to make sure that our politicians will act in the best interests of our own country before they start doing the bidding of other countries. But when we allow one citizen, like Sheldon Adelson, to basically own a political party, it has the same effect as if his money was coming from abroad. It’s true that Adelson is an American citizen, but we could have an Iranian-American or Chinese-American or Turkish-American who distorts our foreign policy in the same way.

The problem isn’t the country or the individual involved. The problem is the disproportionate power one citizen has to bend American foreign policy to his liking. This is also a problem on domestic issues, like gaming regulations. Michael Bloomberg throws a serious amount of money around to support candidates who will push for gun control. He, too, has too much influence. According to Bloomberg News, Tom Steyer spent more in disclosed donations than the Koch Brothers, Robert Mercer or Adelson during the 2014 and 2016 election cycles. In 2014, his $75 million was more than the next three biggest donors combined. It’s not a matter of whether someone is wrong or right. Billionaires shouldn’t be able to bankroll a major political party’s midterm elections, or single-handedly keep a candidate in a presidential race who otherwise would not have the funding to pay for their lunch. These huge donations to the political parties and the Super PACs make a mockery of our own small donations and the idea that we’re all equal citizens.

We need to figure out a way to rein in this type of influence.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.