A fundamental disconnect of the Congress with its constituents is that it is currently not reflective of America’s population, with fewer women and minorities than proportional to the real population, and little reflection of differing socio-economic backgrounds. Professionally it’s also not diverse: 1/3 of Congress is currently comprised of individuals with a legal background. Working-class Americans in office may have a very different perspective on how to get things done from the 47% – just under half of the Congress – that are millionaires (as of 2011). It is no surprise that, in an income bracket defined as the 1% of America, they represent moneyed interests with few pangs of conscience.
If we want to take back the Legislative branch we have to get ourselves into office and change the rules to end the plutocracy which has been on the rise for nearly forty years, and has in recent years swollen disproportionately in the favor of the wealthy. To do this will require tackling the lobbyists and corporation control of Washington.
For a good example of how Congressional representatives no longer are beholden to their constituents, and are instead beholden to lobbyists, look at the case of Bob Dole. “Senator Robert Dole (R-Kan.) worked hard for a billion-dollar tobacco subsidy, and received generous contributions from the tobacco industry. But tobacco is virtually an unknown crop in Kansas, the state that elected him, so whom was he representing?”
Our view of lobbyists is generally people skulking around the halls of Capitol Hill, but this need not be the case. “Americans for Tax Reform, a non-partisan sounding, tax-exempt nonprofit organization, received a total of $4.6 million from the Republican National Committee, which it used to send out 19 million pieces of mail and make four million phone calls urging voters to support the GOP’s campaign against Medicare” in the 1990s. These grassroots lobbyists, non-profits that are just tools of the existing parties, can then be seen to hold tremendous sway as well. Rather than traditional Washington lobbyists who get the ear of the Representative or Senator directly, grassroots goes to one of the critical sources of their power, their constituents, and tricks them into supporting bills and signing petitions they don’t really understand. A recent example was the SOPA/PIPA debacle, in which petitioners asked for help to “keep the Internet free” by the grassroots lobbyists who actually supported the new restrictions.
Here’s another nice example, from the January 2011 issue of the New Internationalist: “In the United States – where statistically one in three people are obese – the US Food and Drug Administration announced in 2009 that it would be issuing new front-of-pack labeling guidance. But industry appears to have stepped in first, with the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and the Food Marketing Institute launching a voluntary front-of-pack labeling scheme in October 2010 to ‘fight against obesity’. Just how manufacturers like Cadbury, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo (all members of the GMA) plan to fight obesity without ditching the products on which their brands were built is unclear.” The GMA is officially a trade association, run out of Washington, and in 2006, for example, spent $1.4 million on lobbying – half to lobbying firms and half to in-house lobbying.
Americans are losing confidence in democracy.
Lobbyists have been steadily on the rise in D.C. since the 1970s, then spiking in 1997 and climbing from about 11,000 to 33,000 in under a decade. An example of this era’s explosion can be seen in Wal-Mart. Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, explains the case:
“Wal-Mart had no full-time representative in Washington before 1999, and only a tiny political action committee, which contributed just $148,250 in 1998…Then came Wal-Mart’s equivalent of Microsoft’s anti-trust shock. Wal-Mart had long wanted to get into the banking business, figuring its millions of consumers would welcome the convenience of banking at Wal-Mart, and the company could make lots of money from banking fees. Wal-Mart hoped to use a loophole in a federal law that generally barred commercial companies from owning banks but exempted stand-alone savings and loans. In 1999 Wal-Mart found a savings and loan in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, that seemed the perfect vehicle. But the banking industry had been following Wal-Mart’s moves carefully. When Wal-Mart sought to buy the bank, the industry unleashed a team of lobbyists on Congress, and Congress abruptly pulled the loophole closed.”
Reich tells of how Wal-Mart responded. $2.2 million was contributed in 2004, and it became one of the largest PACs in the nation. Another such massive lobbying campaign battle took place in 2006, this time with a Wal-Mart that knew how to play the game.
Individual lobbying battles can cost vast amounts. In 2006 one such between the phone companies and internet firms, over net neutrality, cost $50 million in lobbying and advertising. Pet issues can be deeply invested in. “In 1998 Exxon embarked on a campaign to give ‘logistical and moral support’ to any dissenter from scientific findings documenting global climate change, ‘thereby raising questions and undercutting the “prevailing scientific wisdom”’” and four years later they gave $225 million to Stanford so as to create the illusion of debate. Exxon, while more of a friend to the Bush administration, has still spent over $50 million during the Obama administration so far. To put that in perspective, $50,000,000 is equal to the salary of the entire Senate, The President and Vice-President, the nine Supreme Court Justices, and all of California, New York, Texas, Illinois, Arizona, Wisconsin and Florida’s Representatives in Congress, with money to spare.
Paul Ryan (R) and Ron Kind (D) are both from Wisconsin and both sit on the House Ways and Means committee, which has control over corporate tax loopholes. Is it any surprise that, according to the Wisconsin Public Interest Research Group in March of this year, they’ve each “received more than a 100 thousand dollars in campaign contributions over the past two election cycles from corporations that are using such loopholes”?
This is how campaign finance reform and lobbying are interconnected. The lobbyists aren’t just trying to get favorable bills passed through fancy dinners and campaigns for lucrative government contracts. They make sure key Representatives get hefty campaign contributions. For the Representative struggling to make $10,000 a week such contributions help ensure you get reelected, and are a very persuasive way to ensure favorable legislation for your patron. Unless you are independently wealthy (such as the late Ted Kennedy, who gave his Congressional salary to charity each year), you will probably have to find a corporate patron to support your political career. Combined with grass-roots lobbying as a de facto arm of party and corporate interests we have in place a ridiculous feedback loop: corporations give money to parties and Representatives, who give contributions to grass-roots action committees and lobbyist organizations, who tell voters what to vote for, who, being misled, vote for corporate interests, sometimes over their own welfare. The Representative is then reelected, or the bill is passed, and the corporations and lobbyist firms begin a new parasitic cycle.
Contributions from lobbyists to campaigns are now virtually unlimited. Individuals can spend up to $2,500 – but corporations can basically spend whatever they want. In other words, through lobbying and campaign contributions, corporations are edging Americans out of the decision-making process. The ramifications and reasons will be seen in the next section, focusing on the scandalous Citizen’s United decision.