May 7, 2012
If former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley had his way, Super PACs would be rendered illegal because they’re threatening American democracy. In an interview with The Fiscal Times, Bradley, author of We Can All Do Better, which goes on sale May 8, spoke fervently about the corrupting influence of money in politics – and offered up solutions to fix it.
Bradley, 68, a Democrat, made a run for the presidency in 2000 and for 12 years has worked in venture capital, investment banking, and money management. It’s clear he hasn’t lost his passion for public policy and politics.
“The only way to deal with the issue [of the Super PACs] and the money issue generally is by a constitutional amendment,” he says. “Since the Supreme Court in Citizens United said that corporations can contribute unlimited amounts of money – and that a corporation is a person – limiting a person’s right to free speech is a violation of the First Amendment. It’s a ludicrous ruling. The only way to change that is by a constitutional amendment that says, very simply, that federal, state and local government can limit the amount of money spent on a political campaign.”
Part two of the fix, adds Bradley, is “to have public financing of congressional and Senate races. For roughly $3 billion a year out of a $3.5 trillion budget we could take all the special interests out of the legislative process. Then legislation would be influenced more by argument and facts than by dollars.”
In the current presidential campaign so far, there’s been too much of a “blamefest. We’ve focused far too little on America’s future.” The GOP primaries were “mean and petty,” he says, and full of “slogans and posturing.” He believes President Obama is “uniquely qualified to lead this country for another term, but he’s got to lay out what he wants to do. I think he’s starting to do that now.”
Will Bradley campaign for, or with, Obama in the lead-up to the general election? “If he asked me, I sure will,” he says.
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A Princeton University graduate, a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and a championship New York Knick basketball player (he played for the Knicks from 1967 to 1977, helping them snag two NBA titles), Bradley has written six books, all New York Times bestsellers. He shared other thoughts about the state of the country from his office in New York City before setting out on his latest book tour.
On Dodd Frank and Health Care:
For evidence that American democracy is under threat, says Bradley, “you need look no further than the contribution cycle of 2009-2010, when Dodd Frank was done. The financial industry contributed $318 million to congressmen and senators. It’s no wonder that it didn’t do anything about ‘too big to fail.’ They did nothing to rein in the investment banks and the large banks, which now have 75 percent of the financial assets in this country, as opposed to 10 percent in the 1990s. That was directly related to the amount of money [that was spent on lobbying].”
He adds: “And look at health care. The health care industry spent $45 million in that two-year period, so it’s no wonder we don’t have a public option in the health care bill. Unless we can get money out of politics, we can’t get done what the vast majority of Americans want to get done, which is moving this country forward, creating jobs, and becoming more stable.”
On the One Percent vs. the 99 Percent:
“Most of the wealthy want to pay their fair share. I think they recognize America is one national community and that government provides extremely valuable functions. I mean, you can’t fly on an airplane without the FAA, you can’t drive on the road without our infrastructure, you can’t take your medicine without the FDA. And I think if you had a solution where you asked something from everybody, they’re fine.”
“In any budget deal that includes revenues, there should be increased contributions from those who have more. Whether it is done through rates, or whether it’s done through loopholes closings, it’ll be one of the two. I think loophole closings are better than rates, but either one achieves the objective.”
We Need a Third Congressional Party:
“If no one party can decisively defeat another party, we might need a third congressional party that stands for three or four things: a constitutional amendment on campaign finances and financing of elections; a new tax system that taxes things more and people less; investment in infrastructure; and deficit reduction. There are plenty of people in both parties who want to come together to solve our problems, but they have to be liberated from the narrow interests that extract pledges from them and give them money.”
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Time for Reform:
“I think [President Obama] and whoever is the Republican nominee – if it’s Romney, then him – has to think of the future. You have to tell people exactly what you want to do, what you’d do for the middle class to raise their standard of living, what you’d do to fix the deficit, how you’d reform the political system. And [Obama] has begun laying that out, I think, when he was talking about education and infrastructure… The future depends on educated students. I don’t think a lack of money should be a barrier to anyone with talent to get into college and to be able to go to college. We need great public universities, and we have to set the standards really high. We also have to have available some really revamped vocational education.”
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Why Our Tax Code Is a ‘Travesty’:
The mortgage interest deduction “is just one aspect of the tax code that is a travesty,” argues Bradley. “It’s one of the larger loopholes. The question really is, Do you want lower rates of tax or not? If you want higher rates of tax, then put a lot of loopholes in, so that the rest of us have to pay more than we would otherwise need to. The way real tax reform is killed is when you take each individual item. Each item has a strong constituency and can be justified. But unless you can say, What’s more important? The mortgage interest deduction for people who are extremely wealthy – or reducing the deficit, or lowering tax rates for everybody? That’s a pretty clear tradeoff in my opinion.”
It’s Time to ‘Tax Energy Inefficiency’:
“We need more jobs in this country, but we have a great disincentive for hiring in the way we have taxes on work and the employers. Instead of that, let’s have a tax on pollution, a tax on energy inefficiency. You can raise the same amount of money as you do now by taxing work as you do by taxing things.”
‘Narrow Interests Can Paralyze the Country’:
“The Washington club of lobbyists and interest groups are representative of their own interests, not of America. And narrow interests can paralyze a country from doing what it needs to do for all of us. The key linchpin is campaign finance reform.”
‘Democracy Is Not a Vicarious Experience’
“In the Internet age,” says Bradley, “apathy’s not the answer. There’s never been an easier time to get involved than now. People have to understand democracy is not a vicarious experience. If they want the government to deliver on what most people in America want, which is a good job, a good education system for their kids, a health care system that’s affordable, and a secure retirement – they have to pay attention to public policy and to politics. It takes all of us acting together to make America better.”
And Finally – on the Problem with the Knicks:
“I don’t think they’re going to win [against the Miami Heat], period. Right now the Knicks continue to make the same mistake over and over and over. And that is: They draft statistics and not character.”