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Our Corrupt Politics: It’s Not All Money

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Tom Williams/Roll Call/Getty Images
Jack Abramoff (left) leaving a federal courthouse with his attorney, Abbe Lowell, after pleading guilty to felony charges stemming from his lobbying activities, Washington, D.C., January 3, 2006

In 1982, Mississippi senator John Stennis was chairman of the Armed Services Committee. Stennis was a senator of the old school—literally. When he retired in 1989, after forty-one years, he was the chamber’s most senior member, and the second-longest-serving member in the Senate’s history. And so he did things a little differently than we’re used to today. Asked by a colleague to hold a fund-raiser with defense contractors, Stennis recoiled. “Would that be proper?” he asked. “I hold life and death over those companies. I don’t think it would be proper for me to take money from them.”

Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig recounts Stennis’s story in Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It (as does Robert G. Kaiser in the excellent So Damn Much Money*). It is a story, Lessig writes, that

reflects a change in norms. Stennis was no choirboy. But his hesitation reflected an understanding that I doubt a majority of Congress today would recognize. There were limits—even just thirty years ago—that seem as antiquated today as the wigs our Framers wore while drafting the Constitution.

Crucially, those limits were not always legal. Stennis wasn’t concerned that holding the fund-raiser would break the law. He was worried it wasn’t “proper.” He wasn’t worried about breaking the law. He was worried about breaking with the prevailing norms on Capitol Hill. This, Lessig says, is what has changed.

“Would that be proper?” is not, it seems, a question that ever occurred to disgraced ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff. His lawbreaking landed him in jail. His norm-breaking created a national scandal, and arguably lost Republicans control of Congress in 2006. But consider who it is that Abramoff mainly lobbied for, and what it is they actually wanted.

Abramoff lobbied for the Northern Mariana Islands, which sought exemption from certain labor rules for a variety of Native American tribes, which sought to continue a low-regulation, low-tax environment for their casinos, and for defense contractor Tyco, which wanted a tax cut. He was, in these efforts, successful. Arguably too successful. But these are hardly the life-and-death issues of American politics. In a sense, his tactics could only be so extreme, and his wins so decisive, because his issues were so small. What politicians do about the Northern Marianas moves few voters and receives few headlines. Had he been waging more high-profile wars, his hardball tactics would have come to light much sooner, and his career would likely have collapsed far earlier. As every child knows, it’s easier to break the rules when no one is watching.

Abramoff might be the most prominent example of the corruption that has infected our political system, but he is not the best example of it. He is not even a very good example of it. If anything, he’s a throwback to the lobbyists who led Washington more than a century ago. Until 1853, bribing members of Congress was legal, and lobbyists did so with impunity. After bribes were outlawed, lobbyists realized that the law permitted them to pay congressmen “consulting fees,” which they did until well into the twentieth century. Worse, the politicians took bribes with impunity. Early in the nineteenth century, while still a congressman with direct power over its continued survival, Daniel Webster wrote to the Bank of the United States with a blunt message: “If it be wished that my relation to the Bank be continued, it may be well to send me the usual retainers.” Abramoff would have had the check in the mail later that morning.

“The ordinary lobbyist today is a Boy Scout compared with the criminal of the nineteenth century,” Lessig writes.

The lobbyist today is ethical, and well educated. He or she works extremely hard to live within the letter of the law. More than ever before, most lobbyists are just well-paid policy wonks, expert in a field and able to advise and guide Congress well. Regulation is complex; regulators understand very little; the lobbyist is the essential link between what the regulator wants to do and how it can get done…. Most of it is decent, aboveboard, the sort of stuff we would hope happens inside the Beltway.

Abramoff’s memoir is, ultimately, a tale of small-time Washington corruption. It’s the story of how one lobbyist, working on behalf of the Choctaw Indians’ parochial interests, managed to offend a nation’s conscience. Lessig’s story, which focuses on lobbyists whose everyday practices are far less offensive and whose clients are, in the aggregate, far more important, is the story of how lobbying has managed to undermine a nation.

As Lessig writes, the typical lobbyist today plays an important, even crucial, part in the political system. In addition to providing campaign contributions and employment prospects to outgoing elected officials and their staffs, he or she provides legislative expertise. Political scientists call this “the legislative subsidy” model of lobbying, and it poses a serious challenge to the view that lobbyists are little more than parasites.

The theory was first proposed by Richard Hall and Alan Deardorff in a 2006 paper entitled “Lobbying as Legislative Subsidy.” The paper was an attempt to solve a problem that, at first glance, should not have needed to be solved, because it should not have existed in the first place: Why is the behavior of lobbyists so hard to predict?

For instance: you would think that lobbyists would concentrate their financial power and well-honed connections on the politicians they need to persuade. But they don’t. They concentrate it on the politicians who are already most convinced of their positions. Abramoff was an example of this: he spent most of his time among conservative legislators who were already committed to fighting tax increases and new regulations.

Another puzzle: lobbying, at least in its bluntest form, doesn’t seem to work. For many Americans, lobbying is a form of bribery. A rich lobbyist goes to a corrupt congressman, money changes hands, and the lobbyist gets his vote while the congressman gets money for his campaign. Many researchers have tried to find systematic evidence of vote buying. Very few have succeeded. Lessig quotes research by Dan Clawson, Mark Weller, and Alan Neustadtl, which concluded, “Many critics of big money campaign finance seem to assume that a corporate donor summons a senator and says, ‘Senator, I want you to vote against raising the minimum wage. Here’s $5,000 to do so.’ This view, in its crude form, is simply wrong.” Lessig concurs:

If the only way that government power could be converted into campaign cash were by crossing the boundaries of criminal law, then there would be no book to write here. If the only possible “corruption” were the corruption regulated by bribery statutes, then I’d be the first to insist that ours is not a corrupt Congress.

Hall and Deardorf proposed an alternative: lobbying, they argue, is

a matching grant of costly policy information, political intelligence, and labor to the enterprises of strategically selected legislators. The proximate objective of this strategy is not to change legislators’ minds but to assist natural allies in achieving their own, coincident objectives. Their budget constraint thus relaxed by lobbyists’ assistance, already likeminded legislators act as if they were working on behalf of the group when in fact they are working on behalf of themselves.

In other words, lobbyists act like a volunteer, and highly skilled, army for politicians who already agree with them.

This is the most benign, generous explanation of lobbying, but it does not render the practice innocent. In this model, the point of lobbyists is not so much to change votes as to change the legislative agenda. Perhaps you are a legislator interested both in reforming the nation’s drug laws and in cutting taxes on large corporations. If you focus your time on tax cuts for large corporations, you’ll get an enormous amount of money, aid, and attention from lobbyists. If you spend your time on drug policy, you’ll be ignored and your campaign will be underfunded. The disparity is even greater on smaller issues where there may not be another side to engage the debate: if a group of paper companies spends a couple of million dollars hiring lobbyists to persuade politicians of the merits of a change to an obscure provision of the tax code that will net the paper companies a couple of billion dollars, there is likely no one on the other side of that issue amassing materials to explain why this change isn’t a good idea.

Since 1998, OpenSecrets.org, a research group analyzing money in politics, has been tracking spending on lobbyists. The Chamber of Commerce easily leads its list, having spent more than $800 million on lobbying between 1998 and 2011. The American Medical Association comes in second, with over $264 million. Then there’s General Electric, with almost $263 million. Then come the American Hospital Association, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, AARP, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, the National Association of Realtors, Northrop Grumman, and Exxon Mobile. Altogether, the top ten lobbying clients spent more than $2.6 billion on lobbying between 1998 and 2011.

The numbers are even more impressive when you sort the spending by industry. Health care comes in at number one, with more than $4.87 billion in spending. Finance, insurance, and real estate is just behind them, with more than $4.85 billion. Comparatively, energy firms are cheapskates: they’ve barely spent $3.6 billion.

There are significant chicken-and-egg questions here. Health care industries likely spend so much money lobbying because Congress spends so much time debating health care legislation—like 2010’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act—rather than the other way around. But $4.86 billion buys you a lot of legislative subsidy. It gives you an opportunity to shape the way members of Congress think—an opportunity that is not available to those who don’t have $4.86 billion to spend on lobbying.

Lists like this one are common when writing about money and Congress, and for good reason: the numbers are enormous, and unsettling. In fact, they are much more than unsettling. They are discrediting. Whether the reality is as corrupt as these figures suggest, most Americans believe it is as corrupt as these figures suggest. “In a poll commissioned for this book,” Lessig writes, “75 percent of Americans believe ‘campaign contributions buy results in Congress.’ Three to one, with Republicans (71 percent) just as convinced of this as Democrats (81 percent).” That alone should be reason enough to drastically change how Washington works.

But it is not. The American people have been hearing numbers like these for years, and little has been done about them. In part, that’s because legislators themselves do not want to do much about them. They don’t believe money buys their votes. They believe they are decent, honorable people, and they think that many of the lobbyists they work with are, too. In theory, what should happen next is voters should kick them out of office. After all, the American people want the money out of politics, and their elected representatives aren’t getting that done for them. But that doesn’t happen, either. In part, that’s because procedural reforms aren’t the foremost issues in people’s minds. But it’s also because people tend to have a much higher opinion of their member of Congress than they do of the institution as a whole. They may believe Congress is corrupt, but they don’t believe their congressman is corrupt.

  1. *

    So Much Damn Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government (Knopf, 2009). 

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