Amid all the political posturing and smears and counter-smears, one underlying aspect of American politics that is accepted without question by most Americans is the practice of lobbying, although a great many Americans rage against lobbyists for views they don’t believe in or for government programs they oppose. That is, lobbying for the “right” causes is fine, just not for the “wrong” ones, but lobbying itself tends to be accepted as a necessary evil.
Should it be?
James Madison worried greatly about “factions” marshalling votes and influence to shape government unwisely, but felt that restricting the “petitioning” of government allowed by the Constitution was a remedy worse than the illness, and felt that the competition of interests would restrict the influence of any one faction. In a sense, for most of the history of the United States, he was largely correct.
Except… reported annual expenditures for lobbying the federal government have gone from less than $200 million in 1975 to almost $4 billion last year, and the actual numbers are far higher, as I can personally attest, since I spent time as a “consultant” in Washington. D.C., where my earnings were not counted as lobbying because I was merely “analyzing” the effect of potential laws and regulations on business and the economy. Nor were most of the other consultants with whom I worked then classed as lobbyists.
If Madison were correct, lobbying wouldn’t be the problem it’s become. The problem is that it takes money, big money, to analyze and determine the impact of policy and laws… and to package and present such analyses in easily understandable format to legislators and federal bureaucrats. The result is that close to three quarters of all lobbying expenditures are made by large businesses and business organizations. It also takes a continual presence, which requires more money, and the most effective lobbyists are those who know the system – such as former bureaucrats, former staffers, and former members of Congress, all of whom have greater access.
When I left my position as a Congressional staff director to become Director of Legislation at the U.S. EPA, I was thirty-seven years old, with ten years’ experience in politics, and I was one of the older Congressional staff directors. Legislative aides were usually far younger and paid much less. From what I’ve been able to determine, this situation hasn’t changed, and isn’t likely to, not when staff directors’ pay is statutorily capped at far below that of lobbyists and consultants and when most senior Congressional staffers work 60-80 hour weeks, and sometimes longer, with no overtime, and can be dismissed literally instantly [I saw this happen personally several times].
The Congressional staff workload is incredibly heavy; most staffers are young and with little experience, especially compared to the lobbyists, and they don’t have enough time to research anything in depth, while the lobbyists do and can also rely on long experience.
The result is a foregone conclusion, and exactly what we see today, a legally permitted lobbying system heavily slanted toward those interests with the most resources, predominantly but not exclusively those of business. Unhappily, there’s another aspect that Madison and the Founding Fathers didn’t and probably couldn’t have foreseen. It’s simple enough. Because society has become incredibly more complex since 1789, the federal government has expanded into regulating and influencing almost every aspect of American society, and while “purists” insist much of this is not necessary, in fact much of it is, unhappily.
Before we had food and drug safety laws, buying food and medicines was often the equivalent of Russian roulette, especially in cities. The growth of industry meant that state laws were inadequate to deal with trade and industrial problems, and legal conflicts required resolution. Before there were environmental laws, rivers literally caught fire and swimming in some could literally kill you. Before finance legislation, bank failures were a common occurrence, and borrowers neither had access to information on which to make decisions nor recourse if a bank failed.
The upshot of all this is that there are a multiplicity of individual interests as the result of an expanded government and an economy with international impacts, and each individual interest competes with every other interest for getting the attention of government. Those interests representing the most money or the most votes generally are those pushed most successfully by lobbyists, and the overriding problem is that the sum total of those “noticed” private interests doesn’t equate to the overall public interest.
Over time, while there are times when governments need to run deficits, public revenues, i.e., taxes, need to come close to the level of public expenditures. That’s a definite overall public interest. Breathing clean air and having clean water to drink is an overall public interest. Not having mine wastes spill into drinking water is a public interest. Having a taxation system that doesn’t give special breaks to some industries and not to others might also be considered an overall good. But we’re running massive deficits and have for years; we still have air unfit to breathe in many parts of the country; and we’ve had massive drinking water pollution from failures of mine tailings impoundments and from agricultural impoundments. We have a crumbling transportation infrastructure, an increasingly fragile electric power distribution system, and municipal water systems that leak and waste incredible amounts of water… and those are just a fraction of the real problems out there.
But comparatively few lobbyists are out there pushing the public good, and all too often those “public interest” lobbyists are attacked and ridiculed for being anti-business, or opposed to someone’s “rights” to run an organization or as business as they choose. Even the “go-gooders” apparently pushing for public interests tend to focus on the popular causes, and there’s nothing new about this. Some twenty years ago, the U.S. EPA did a study on funding for environmental causes, and discovered that the environmental problems that caused the most deaths and health problems were far down the list, while high profile problems that actually affected comparatively far fewer people topped both federal appropriations and public concerns.
In the end, lobbying costs money, and businesses have more of it than anyone else, and that means they most often have most of the best hired guns, access to the best information, and the best systems for presenting their cases. That doesn’t even account for the impact of campaign contributions.
The real wonder is that there are as many cases where government actually tries to promote the overall public good as there are, but those instances are becomingly increasingly rarer… because most lobbyists aren’t interested in the public good, only in pushing for favorable treatment for their private good… and as the increasing welter of special interest provisions in law and regulations indicates, private interests are increasingly trumping public good.