OPINION | Campaign-finance laws created candidate Bloomberg

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HOUSE Democrats held a panicked hearing recently about how to respond to the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which upheld the right of corporations to spend in elections. Their concern was the undue influence corporate spending might have on the coming elections.

In the entire 2016 campaign cycle, corporations spent less than $300 million on federal races, less than 5% of total spending. Meanwhile, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has already spent more than $360 million on cable, broadcast and radio advertisements since declaring his candidacy in mid-November. That doesn’t include Mr. Bloomberg’s spending on staff, office space, logistics and internet advertising. Overturning Citizens United wouldn’t touch that money.

“It’s a shame Mike Bloomberg can buy his way into the debate,” tweeted Sen. Elizabeth Warren. The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent typifies liberal angst with the claim that Mr. Bloomberg’s spending “threatens to constitute a moral and political disaster.”

Whether Mr. Bloomberg’s ad barrage translates to more than a brief blip in the polls remains to be seen — he was savaged by his rivals in his first debate.

But Mr. Bloomberg’s ad campaign is likely to help the eventual Democratic nominee, whether it is Mr. Bloomberg or someone else. Many of his ads directly attack President Trump. Since Mr. Bloomberg is a candidate, federal law mandates that he get the lowest unit ad rate. If Mr. Bloomberg used the same money to fund a super PAC, it would have to pay market rates. Thus being a candidate wins Mr. Bloomberg an advantage in softening up Mr. Trump for the Democratic nominee. At the same time, super PACs backing other candidates have to pay far more for their ads than Mr. Bloomberg does, while their campaigns are subject to strict limits on the size of contributions they can receive. The former mayor doesn’t need contributions.

But all this misses an even bigger elephant in the room: Bloomberg Media, which Mr. Bloomberg owns. Federal law exempts the institutional press from campaign finance restrictions, allowing media corporations to coordinate their spending with campaigns — which is illegal for other corporations — and to avoid burdensome reporting requirements, all the while spending what they want to elect their favored candidates. Favorable media coverage — or hostile coverage of an opponent — is invaluable.

A media corporation owned or controlled by a candidate is excluded from the exemption unless its coverage is part of “a general pattern of campaign-related news” that gives “reasonably equal coverage to all opposing candidates.” But unless and until they are formally nominated, Mr. Bloomberg and President Trump are not, under the law, considered “opposing candidates.” The law holds that until then, Mr. Bloomberg is competing only with other Democrats for the nomination. So for now, Bloomberg News is free to trash the president and his policies all it wants. Thus, attacking the president and sparing his Democratic rivals is the official policy of Bloomberg News and its 2,700 reporters. Bloomberg’s editor in chief has written, “We will continue our tradition of not investigating Mike...and we will extend the same policy to his [Democratic] rivals.” But it “will continue to investigate the Trump administration.”

Even if Mr. Bloomberg becomes the Democratic nominee, there is no way to prevent Bloomberg News from shaping its coverage of the economy and current events to help its owner’s candidacy or harm the president’s. For example, despite the strong economy, on a recent weekend Bloomberg News headlines included: “In Hot U.S. Jobs Market, Half of College Grads Are Missing Out,” “All the Ways Stock Market Bulls Have Gone Off the Rails. Again,” and “China Trade War Walloped More Than Half of U.S. States in 2019.”

Wage growth has been strong, and those with lower incomes have seen the largest percentage increases. But this decline in income inequality is no reason to celebrate at Bloomberg News, which frets, “In recent years, while high-school graduates have seen a sharp pickup in earnings, the lower-earning half of college graduates haven’t — and the gap between them is now the smallest in 15 years.”

Bloomberg News also runs regular over-the-top opinion pieces criticizing Mr. Trump, with headlines such as: “An Unrestrained Trump May End Up Trapping Himself,” “Trump Is Already Making Stuff Up About Voter Fraud,” and “Trump’s Tariffs Haven’t Rescued American Steel.” Again, all from a single weekend.

The value of these stories to Democrats in general, and to Mr. Bloomberg in particular, almost certainly exceeds Mr. Bloomberg’s advertising expenditures. But there is no way that the government could or should police Bloomberg News’s content for political bias.

Further, Bloomberg News’s headlines and stories are not substantially different from those one finds in the Washington Post (owned by the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos), the New York Times (which is controlled by the Sulzberger family and for several years counted Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim as its largest shareholder), or most other traditional news outlets. Meanwhile, candidates operate under strict limits on contributions, making it difficult to counteract the influence of magnates with newspapers.

The whole saga illustrates the impossibility of putting government in control of campaign speech, and the unfairness that results from trying. Campaign finance laws don’t equalize political influence — they give an advantage to some of the richest and most powerful men in America.

Congressional Democrats have busied themselves with proposing constitutional amendments to overturn Citizens United. That’s small beer. If Democrats want to make campaigns “equal,” they’ll have to repeal the First Amendment’s guarantee of press freedom. I doubt they want to go that far.

Mr. Smith served as chairman of the Federal Election Commission, 2001-05, and is chairman of the Institute for Free Speech. Mr. Lott is president of the Crime Prevention Research Center.

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