In May, an eccentric 30-year-old cryptocurrency billionaire named Sam Bankman-Fried made a startling proclamation. In a podcast interview, Bankman-Fried said he would spend as much as $1 billion of his estimated $12.8-billion fortune on American politics by the 2024 election, joining the ranks of megadonors such as George Soros and the Koch brothers.
At the time, Bankman-Fried, raised in the Bay Area by two Stanford law professors, was far from a household name. FTX, the crypto exchange he founded and runs, makes most of its money overseas, and was perhaps best known in America for buying the naming rights for the Miami Heat's arena.
In Washington, though, Bankman-Fried — known as SBF online — has become a familiar sight on Capitol Hill, meeting with lawmakers, chatting with aides and testifying before congressional committees.
This week, an FTX ad featuring a giant image of the mop-topped billionaire graced a billboard in D.C.'s Union Station, towering over Hill staffers on their way to work. (Bankman-Fried's famous hair, which makes him look even younger than his years, is available for purchase as an NFT.) And he has opened his pockets as promised, giving at least $34 million to political candidates and causes since January.
Bankman-Fried has offered a simple explanation for his political spending to all who ask, saying that he wants to encourage lawmakers to better prepare for the next pandemic. But on the Hill this year, many of his activities have focused on regulation of his company and of the industry that made him rich.
In a video interview from his office in the Bahamas, Bankman-Fried maintained that his priority is pandemic preparedness and said "many" of his donations "had nothing really, specifically, to do with anything related to FTX." But he acknowledged a broader agenda.
"I am spending a lot of time talking with members about what constructive things would be on crypto policies and about what can be done to provide federal oversight of it. And so when I go to D.C., that is often what I'm doing," Bankman-Fried told The Times. "I think that it is really important that there's federal oversight of the crypto industry."
Bankman-Fried's lobbying efforts focus on two arcane but significant regulatory changes.
First, Bankman-Fried wants the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, rather than the better-funded Securities and Exchange Commission, to oversee crypto markets.
Bankman-Fried has already made significant progress toward that goal. Last week, Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and John Boozman (R-Ark.), the chair and ranking member of the Senate agriculture committee, introduced the Digital Commodities Consumer Protection Act of 2022, which aims to define cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ether as "digital commodities" rather than securities, bringing their oversight under the CFTC.