SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

March 11, 2014

Watson: Big money can buy a democracy

Brian T. Watson
The Salem News

---- — 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.

And take note, both Democratic and Republican ex-pols participate equally. For example, ex-Democratic senator Tom Daschle works for DLA Piper, a prominent lobbying firm that represents banking, finance, real estate, and energy interests.

Ex-Republican governor Tim Pawlenty heads the Financial Services Roundtable, a trade group that lobbies for the world’s largest financial companies. Pawlenty influences banking regulations for the likes of Barclays, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan and Fidelity.

Onetime Democratic senator John Breaux and Republican Trent Lott work for Patton Boggs, a firm that lobbies for the health, finance, transportation and defense industries.

Ex-Democratic senator Birch Bayh works for Venable LLP, a firm that advocates for the tobacco, automotive, pharmaceutical, and casino industries. Ex-Republican House member Bill Paxon works for Akin, Gump LLP, a firm that represents the finance, agricultural, insurance, and casino industries.

We could go on and on. Maybe you’re wondering if some rough balance of damage occurs. If both liberals and conservatives enjoy post-electoral careers in lobbying and influence-peddling, wouldn’t their efforts just maintain the approximate philosophical divisions now in the nation?

Well, no. Real damage occurs — real distortion of legislation — because professional lobbying firms and other special interests actually represent only distinct slices of the interests and citizens in the nation. Furthermore, among the interests that have a D.C. lobbying presence, their resources and clout vary tremendously.

Who often gets left out of lobbying efforts is the ordinary citizen. And what gets left out frequently is moderation itself, or the common public interest. If legislation frequently represents a deal among special interests, so that each gets a pie slice, then the common good can be shortchanged. Every subsidy to a special interest, every sweetheart deal to an industry, every regulatory distortion, or every favor to a pol’s state, comes at a cost — in policy or dollars or damage — to the general public.

Do you hate the unions? Hate corporate “personhood”? Lobbyists and politicians love it when we citizens cherry-pick the lobby we dislike most and argue about which special interest is too powerful. The truth is that we and democracy would be better served to unite and demand an end to the revolving door between politicians and lobbying, and an end to outrageous lobbyist spending. Remember, a lobbyist’s loyalty is first to his client, who is paying him millions to deliver.

Onetime public officials should be prohibited for life from all lobbying capacities. And corporations, unions, trade groups, PACs, 501 (c)(4)s, 527s, and every other advocacy group should be subject to severe spending caps (and full, real-time disclosure) on both lobbying efforts and political contributions.

Today, literally billions are spent on lobbying, on past and present politicians, and on influencing legislation and regulation. In a democracy, this is trouble. Because money buys a democracy. Money buys power. And power buys results.

Brian T. Watson is a Salem News columnist. Contact him at btwatson20@gmail.com.