thoughts on politics

August 28, 2008

On Lobbying

Filed under: Uncategorized — Matt @ 12:22 pm
Tags: ,

Two items I read in two newspapers last week hit upon the same idea, and begged comment from me.

First, from an editorial the August 21 NY Times called “The Hands that Feed Them:”

Here’s something to remember while you watch the presidential conventions. The lush weeklong extravaganzas — staged in the name of ordinary Americans — will be largely paid for by private, unlimited donations from corporations, deep-pocketed donors and (a few) unions that shop 24/7 for privileged government access.

How much cash are we talking about? More than $112 million is expected from private donors — by far the lion’s share of the cost of the two conventions.

So much for changing the way Washington works. The candidates, Senators John McCain and Barack Obama, have been presenting themselves as dedicated reformers of the money-ridden political process — just not for the weeks of freebie conventioneering.

The celebrations in Denver and Minneapolis-St. Paul will be monuments to the way Washington works: crassly, with real politics galvanized by money.

The gimmick is that soft money is still allowed for the conventions because election regulators have ludicrously deemed the host committees to be civic ventures dedicated to boosting the local cities. The fact is: the host committees are run by party heavyweights and fund-raisers who are eager to have the tabs for their celebrations of democracy picked up by fat-cat favor-seekers.

If the two presidential candidates really want to prove their reform credentials, they should commit to banning this embarrassing trough of soft money — long before the conventions of 2012.

And from that same day’s Red & Black, by the ever-courageous Zaid Jilani:

In a recent Barack Obama campaign ad, the senator says he will put “the middle class first.” His opponent John McCain has been touring rust belt states assuring us he won’t exhibit “indifference” to the plight of working people.

Unfortunately for those of us who want to believe them, everyone has a price, and corporate America is more than willing to pay.
[and so on.]

It seems to be conventional wisdom among many today (and not just “liberals,” although both of these examples do come from the left) that lobbying by corporations is necessarily a bad thing.

When I visited Jonathan at Princeton last spring, I sat in on a session of his political science class.  The topic that day was “special interests,” and the professor led the class through a discussion of what special interests were, and what function they served.  When it came to lobbying, he asked for examples of lobbying in politics.  All the examples given were things like a large corporation trying to get tax breaks, unions trying to get favorable laws passed, and sensitive-issue groups trying to change the law.

The view most commonly held seems to be that lobbying is only an action that despicable corporations and hot-button issue groups employ to get special treatment from the government, or drastic reform in the laws, all at the expense of the people at large.

To be sure, this does happen, and in these cases, that’s about all it is.  But the mere act of lobbying does not run contrary to our well-being in a democratic society, but is, in fact, good and essential.  No one in Jonathan’s class seemed to think that “lobbying” also encompassed ordinary actions by ordinary citizens: a person writing a letter or calling their congressman, a church group or volunteer group taking a trip to Washington, DC, and meeting with their congressman, and even a $50 campaign donation by an average Joe.  Lobbying is simply the act of trying to influence a policymaker to make a decision favorable to you, and probably almost every interaction with an elected official (or a potential one) counts as this.

When McCain and Obama boast that they have no lobbyists on their campaign staffs, I wonder how they can make that claim straight-facedly, or allow people to reach the conclusion they want to imply through it — that they are not influenced by lobbyists.  A president on whom lobbyists had no bearing would be more like the Leader in V for Vendetta than any kind of figure beholden to his citizens.  He would make his decisions totally regardless of what implications they would have for his people.  No citizen — or, rather, subject — would ever be able to talk to him, he would never make an effort to learn about living conditions in his autocracy, and no .  He would be unreachable, and his decisions would be absolute.

No, lobbying is a part of democracy, and is in fact a defining characteristic of representative democracy.  A candidate who claims to be against lobbying is against that.

Now what if we restrict our use of “lobbying,” as Princeton students and commentators like those above do, to describe only lobbying by major corporations, unions, countries, and hot-button issue groups?  Is that type of lobbying bad?  Should it be banned?

To answer the first question, this type of lobbying is only as bad as any other kind of lobbying.  Perhaps it’s not the lobbying commentators should object to, but the readiness with which politicians sell their votes, especially when it does run against the interests of most people, or against human rights.

To answer the second question, I would ask first “could it be banned?”  If we wanted to ban lobbying by corporations in general, that would preclude lobbying by small businesses and plenty of companies we don’t always think of as the giant soulless vacuums of greed today.

How about cutting off lobbying privileges only to companies of a certain size, or by some other standard?  If we did, I can see no way this would not be a completely arbitrary judgment, different from person to person.

And what if we did do this anyway? Would the outcome be better for the overall population?  I doubt it.  One reason corporations lobby so much is because they are such big targets for legal action, by both private citizens and government regulators.  It’s not their fault that Americans like to sue, and if we were able to reduce this burden on them some other way, they would not need to seek as much protection from within the legal system.

Of course, corporations also lobby for laws more favorable to them.  Sometimes the changes they want would be good for the population overall, sometimes bad (without defining exactly what would fit into each, I hope we can just agree some would be good and some would be bad).  If lobbying by corporations was banned, we would lose out on all the beneficial changes they seek to make their operation costs lower along with all the bad.

But this is not the best solution.  The answer is not to ban the act of lobbying, nor to try to remove the apparatus of private donation to campaigns, to related PACS, or to anything else.  The answer is for people to vote more intelligently, and to hold their leaders more accountable.  Should Chris Dodd, who got special rates from Countrywide in 2003 on two home mortgages, and subsequently sponsored a bill to help the ailing company this past summer, stay in office?  Not if his voters think that amounts to a criminal give-and-take.  Should Ted Stevens have won his primary in Alaska yesterday, as he did, though he’s currently under investigation for taking large gifts from oil companies?  Not if his constituents don’t like how cozy he has been with oil executives.

The problem with the New York Times’ editorial opinion is that it seems to have never considered the option of voting installed politicians out of office, which at the Senate level, scarcely ever happens.  They continue to view crooked pols as the “defenders of the public interest,” and corporations as selfish favor-seekers.  The solution, they contend, is not to kick out politicians who act more in a few corporations’ interests, but to change the system so that our representatives cannot be lobbied.  This is not the solution we want.

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