We are grappling with plenty of big problems in our country today, but the biggest one of all is partially hidden, and its very existence makes almost impossible the satisfactory discussion and resolution of all of the other problems.
I’m referring to the enormous, insidious and growing role of money in our political process. Funding lobbyists, underwriting candidates and campaigns, influencing the content and character of media, and often determining government policy, huge amounts of money are constantly at work within the institutional structures of our democracy and within the largest media companies of our TV, cable, Internet and social communication networks.
First, the extent of “traditional” lobbying has expanded tremendously. Corporations, unions, industry groups, the financial sector and a host of other special interests have increased their lobbying expenditures exponentially. There are roughly 35,000 registered lobbyists in Washington, and they deeply influence politicians, their staffs, legislation, policy debates, agency activities, regulation, enforcement and even the Congressional agenda itself.
Just to take one example of thousands, the Wall Street financial services sector spends tens of millions of dollars annually on hiring lobbyists, donating to politicians and funding various methods of political advertising. What the sector gets for its money is face-to-face access to senators and congressmen and their staffs, legislation that is modified by its concerns, and influence on public opinion and on election outcomes.
There is a revolving door connecting industry and lobbying firms with politicians and their staffs. Play ball with a big corporation and they’ll hire you when you leave office. Or join a professional lobbying firm and your political contacts will get you a seven-figure salary.
Additionally, after the Citizens United decision of early 2010, when the Supreme Court removed many of the limits on corporate and union political spending, there has been an explosion in the number of super PACs and in the creation of 501(c)(4), nonprofit organizations that spend money on all sorts of political activities, lobbying and campaigns.