, Salem, MA


March 11, 2014

Watson: Big money can buy a democracy

Money buys power. And power buys results.

Last week I outlined some of the realities regarding the ever-increasing role of money in politics. This column will focus more specifically on lobbying.

During the past 30 or 40 years, the presence and activities of professional lobbyists in Washington, D.C., have grown enormously. In the 1960s and before, lobbying was — as a proportion of all of the things that influenced Congress — a much smaller endeavor and a far less sophisticated operation than it is now.

In the mid-60s there were still fewer than 5,000 lobbyists in the capitol. Today there are roughly 80,000 to 90,000 registered and unregistered professional, full-time lobbyists there. They are employed by all of the major industries and professions and unions that are affected by government policy. They work hard to influence politicians, legislation, regulation, and enforcement.

Lobbyists are required to register with the House and Senate clerks and disclose their spending and activities. Some do, but the overwhelming majority do not. The majority distort technical descriptions in the law to remain unregistered. That allows them a better chance to hide their identities, activities, spending and clients. Not from congressmen, mind you, who see them every day, but from the public record, which is all the citizenry (not being in D.C.) usually sees.

What kind of career path is lobbying? Who grows up to be a lobbyist? Mostly, professional lobbyists are former politicians or staffers, or are drawn from the upper levels of government agencies or departments. Today, more than 50 percent of retiring senators and congressmen are hired by D.C. lobbying firms, trade organizations or other groups with a significant stake in federal policy.

There is something startling, bald, and unseemly about seeing the names of hundreds of ex-congressmen and onetime public officials on the employee lists of the capitol’s private lobbying and trade firms. For the primary reason that they receive these jobs is so that they can trade on their influence with their old colleagues.

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