The difficult situation we are in today results in large part from a system of government driven by special-interest groups and politicians who must weigh campaign contributions before deciding what causes to support and how to vote. In his book, Selling Out: How Big Corporate Money Buys Elections, Rams Through Legislation, and Betrays Our Democracy, Mark Green writes that one senator complained that he was lucky to work from mid-Tuesday to Thursday as he needed to spend the rest of the week fund-raising.
He went on to state that members of Congress are “loath” to vote on any controversial issue as it may come back to haunt them when raising money. This constant fund-raising takes a toll physically and psychologically and cites this example: “‘I can’t think,'” an exasperated President Bill Clinton once bellowed to his staff. “‘You want me to issue executive orders, but I can’t focus on a thing but the next fund-raiser.'”
In essence, Mark Green indicates that a candidate must win two elections, the first in which contributors select candidates that the voters then get to vote on. If you can’t win the first election and receive financial support, you don’t stand a chance of winning the second among the populace. Our political leadership is elected based on who can raise the most money to buy TV airtime âˆ’ most of which is devoted, not to telling the public what the candidate stands for, but discrediting the other candidate.
When Senators John McCain (Republican) and Russ Feingold (Democrat) introduced the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, commonly known as the McCain-Feingold Bill, it was met with considerable resistance on both sides of the aisle. The bill’s three principal objectives were to address the increasing role of soft money in campaigns (contributions to a party in order to avoid federal limits to contributions made directly to candidates), the proliferation of issue ads (discuss an issue without identifying a candidate), and the disturbing campaign practices during the 1996 presidential race. The bill, first introduced in 1997, did not get approval until 2002, and then only after being revised numerous times and watered down to make it palatable to every special-interest group, lobbyist, and congressman, in that order. No sooner was the act put in place than both parties and lobbyists were looking for ways to further circumvent it.
On Jan. 21, 2010, big corporations and their lobbyists won the Super Bowl of political victories. The United States Supreme Court in a 5 – 4 decision ruled that the government may not restrict political spending by corporations, labor unions, and other organizations in candidate elections. The conservative majority of the Supreme Court overturning decades of law and legal precedent with a decision that will inevitably further corrupt our system of government by giving unprecedented power to special interests at the expense of the American people.
Unlike Democrats and Republicans who are constantly at each other’s throats, it would be a rare congressman who says that the lobbyists are a negative force in the American political system (other than during an election campaign). Democrats and Republicans allow lobbyists to do most of their thinking for them and therefore, lobbyists are shaping American policy and profoundly influencing the course of American government.
In 1968, there were sixty-two lobbyists in Washington; today there are 34,000, outnumbering members of Congress and their staffers two to one. Between 1998 and 2004, lobbyists spent a total of $13 billion to influence legislation. Individual firms, corporations, and national organizations spent an average of $5.5 million per day in 2004, lobbying Congress and federal agencies. By the 2008 election year, they were spending approximately $3.2 billion per year or $8.9 million per day for influence.
For Congressmen, what is there not to like about lobbyists? It’s an unofficial party without a single platform, but rather represents as many causes as there are clients willing to pay for their loyalty. The real beauty of the lobbyist party is that most of them are willing to share their exorbitant fees with Democrats and Republicans without bias toward party affiliation. In recent years, approximately forty-three percent of the eligible Congressional members who departed government and half of all eligible departing senators have found very comfortable positions as lobbyists, as have many high-level congressional staffers. Perhaps some of these retirees find that they can write or influence more legislation as lobbyists than as members of Congress.
There are numerous examples of outrageous tax legislation passed at the insistence of lobbyists. A great example is the American Jobs Creation Act of 2004, dubbed the “No Lobbyist Left behind Act” by Senator John McCain. Initially, it was to be a simple adjustment to a foreign tax subsidy, but it resulted in $140 billion in tax concessions. By the time the lobbyists were finished with the legislation, there were tax breaks for professional golfers, racetrack owners, cruise lines, and a “manufacturers” designation break given to Starbucks for the coffee grinding part of their business.
What Americans must understand is that the lobbyist party practices Don Corleone-style politics. If you’re laying out $13 billion in campaign contributions, use of corporate jets, extravagant gifts, and lucrative speaking engagements to members of Congress, you expect something in return. In the 1972 movie classic, The Godfather, when Don Corleone was asked by a man if he would have his daughter’s and his family’s honor avenged, the Don agreed and said, “Someday, and that day may never come, I will call upon you to do a service for me.” Nothing is done in Washington for anyone without the expectation of reciprocity – and that day always comes.
As money needed for campaigns has risen, members of Congress and presidents have focused less on what is best for the American people and have become increasingly interested in issues lobbyists bring to their attention. Most in Congress say that without the money, which allows them to get elected, voters would not benefit from their insight and wisdom. In most cases, their insight and wisdom is focused on raising money for their campaigns. Would it not be great if they could use those same skills to raise money to reduce our national debt?
At one time, most lobbyists represented voters and made sure Congress and the president understood the issues of the American public they represented, but now every special interest group has the right to express its concerns and push its agenda with our political leaders. Today, however, it is no longer about how many voters a lobbyist represents but rather how much money it will spend to influence a vote. If we could stop the $8.9 million lobbyists spend on Congress and federal officials each day, the number of lobbyists would likely drop to 1968 levels and the voters would be better represented. Even if the only campaign funds that could be used were from federal or state treasuries, the cost to the American people would be dramatically less than the current method that too often promotes the desires of special interest groups at the expense of the American public.
The American people pay the salaries of our elected officials, but it is the special-interest groups and their money who often decide who is hired and who is fired. In his book, Rome Wasn’t Burnt in a Day, Joe Scarborough, MSNBC commentator and former member of Congress (1994–2001), describes what congressional rookies are taught upon entering Congress.
He states that they start with a lesson on the importance of party loyalty. Both freshmen congressmen and senators learn very quickly that new members who play ball with the party leadership will be rewarded. They will be assigned to the best committees and powerful leaders and chairmen will be put on their fundraising committees. Arms will be twisted in the lobbying community to provide financial assistance.
For the best behaved, the Speaker of the House or the majority leader will travel to their home districts to help raise a few hundred thousand dollars. He goes on to state, “If the carrot fails to entice, the stick is quickly pulled from the party leader’s back pocket to beat the wayward member over the head. And if a member dares to speak out against his party leader’s latest stupid bill or embarrassing statement, the offending member is quickly reminded that the party neither forgives nor forgets – ever.” This may not always be the case, but it often is.
In the 2008 election, according to the Center for Responsible Politics (CRP), winners of House seats raised an average of $1,100,000 to get elected, and senators averaged $6,500,000. Of the top 100 individual contributors, all but five were associated with major corporations, professional services (e.g., law and accounting), entertainment companies, foundations, or large private educational institutions. Individual contributions for this group during the 2008 election cycle ranged from $201,350 to $348,268. Buying influence is not expensive when you consider what it can get you.
In ninety-three percent of House of Representatives races and ninety-four percent of Senate races n 2008, the candidate who spent the most money ended up winning. The CRP estimated the total cost of the 2008 elections for Congress and the White House at $5.3 billion, making it the most expensive United States election ever. Is it reasonable to expect that the elected politicians owe their campaign contributors for helping them win?
In his 2007 book, The Audacity of Hope, then-Senator Barack Obama wrote candidly about the costs of running a campaign in terms of dollars, and their potential for redirecting a candidate’s purpose. Like Mark Green, Obama also wrote that without money, you are pretty much guaranteed to lose. He indicated that he could not assume that the money chase didn’t alter him in some ways, and that as a consequence he became more like the wealthy donors he met. He believed that in one fashion or another, he suspected this was true for every senator. Obama went on to state, “The longer you are a senator, the narrower the scope of your interactions…The path of least resistance – of fund-raisers organized by the special interests, the corporate PACs, and the top lobbying shops – starts to look awfully tempting, and if the opinions of these insiders don’t quite jibe with those you once held, you learn to rationalize the changes as a matter of realism, of compromise, of learning the ropes.”
As a senator, President Obama made it clear in his book that lobbyists don’t explicitly demand a quid pro quo when helping elected officials. They are given more access, more information, and they have more face time than the average voter. With this, he states by way of example, they are able to promote obscure provisions in the tax code that could save their clients billions of dollars. So we may rightfully ask, Who is lobbying on behalf of American’s future, for our children and their children’s futures?
Clearly, to be elected, President Barack Obama took considerable sums from contributors with whom his opinions did not quite jibe. How much will he compromise his beliefs to repay these contributors who he and his party must depend on for future elections? Can we do anything to create a better method for our political leaders to get elected, other than selling themselves?
Lobbying can’t be completely extinguished as many would like. We Americans have the constitutional right to petition the government for redress of grievances. I don’t believe there are many Americans who would argue against this most essential right. The issue many of us we find most difficult to understand is how we, as a nation, have allowed a minority of wealthy individuals, corporations, and governments to influence our nation’s political leadership through campaign contributions. What we find most offensive is that so many politicians set themselves up to be influenced, often to the detriment of their constituents and the nation as a whole.
Perhaps someday we can go back to electing candidates who are the best at representing the people rather than those who are best at raising money. Ultimately, it’s our political leaders who should be looking at the big picture. They have the power and responsibility to say “no” when the American economy and its people will be hurt. Congress has the power to change the laws and the way in which business is conducted in Washington. Thus far, Congress has chosen to maintain the status quo.
Caricatures and criticism of politicians, while a national pastime, is in the end generally unproductive. While we may not want to admit it, they most often behave much like the majority of Americans do — seeking personal gain. Of course, since we select these individual as our leaders, we hold them to a higher standard. We want to assume that what they tell us in their campaigns is true, and that they will hold the public’s interest above all special interests and certainly above their personal interest.
When this does not happen, we may not be surprised, but we are always disappointed. We place our political leaders in an untenable position, one in which they must sell-out in order to get elected, and then we feel betrayed when we realize that they have sold us out. As long as these leaders must gain special interest funding and political party support in order to get elected or re-elected, we will continue to be disappointed and betrayed.
Because of the manner in which our system has developed, we as a nation have lost our leadership and our way. The great American philosopher, Yogi Berra, could have been talking about the United States when responding to someone who told him they thought they were lost. He said, “Yeah, but we’re making great time!”
Geoeconomist Ronald R. Pollina, Ph.D., is the author of the nationally recognized Pollina Corporate Top 10 Pro-Business States Study, which is published annually. He is the president and founder of Chicago-based Pollina Corporate Real Estate. This article is excerpted from Selling Out a Superpower: Where the U.S. Economy Went Wrong and How We Can Turn It Around with permission of Prometheus Books.