Sunday, May 20, 2012

Lobby, schmobby

I'll just apologize in advance:  this is not a particularly fun post, but I haven't written in a while and I need to get this out of my head.   I just finished a book:   Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress--and a Plan to Stop It .  The author, Lawrence Lessig, is a professor at Harvard Law School and teaches ethics.  He clerked for Justice Scalia and has degrees in economics, management, philosophy, and law.

Set the wayback machine to 1933
The gist of his book is that lobbyists and big contributors have too much influence over congress.  Congress is supposed to be acting in the best interests of the people, but in many cases, it appears to be acting in the best interests of its funders.

Lessig begins by citing lots of examples where funding seems to make a difference even when it shouldn't, and talks about how this erodes faith in the system. 

The way things are today, candidates are selected by their party based on how much money they can raise.  This means that most congresspeople have to spend 30-40% of their time fundraising.

It hasn't always been this way.  From 1933 until 1995, Democrats controlled the House in all but four years and the Senate in all but 10.  Democrats had things pretty well locked down.  This began to change when LBJ became president after JFK's assassination.  He made the momentous decision to put civil rights at the core of his administration.  In doing so, he ticked off southern Democrats, driving many  of them over to the Republicans.  This shift in power and the rise of Ronald Reagan, among other things, led us to 1994 and Newt Gingrich's Contract with America. 

In 1994, Republicans gained control of both houses.  Between 1995 and 2010, control of Congress changed hands as many times as it had in the forty-five years before.  The fighting has been fierce, and huge amounts of money have been spent on both sides.

Congresspeople have an extreme need to raise funds, and lobbyists are there for them.  Lobbyists can contribute cash themselves, but they also put together fundraisers where their clients can donate to a campaign.   Congresspeople have the power of earmarks.  Professional lobbyists sit at the center of this money vortex.

Becoming a lobbyist is a goal for many legislators and their staffers.  They spend a few terms in congress, make connections, then go to work for a lobbying firm for 10 times the salary.

Lobbying is effective, too.  The return on lobbyists' investment to modify the American Jobs Creation Act of 2004 was 22,000 percent.  On average, for every dollar an average firm spends to lobby for targeted tax benefits, the return is between $6 and $20.

Lessig proposes 4 different ways to solve the problem, assigning them all low chances of success.  I won't try to describe them, but they're different ways to reform campaign finance.  In the past, saying "campaign finance reform" was a sure way to put me to sleep.  Now, I'm starting to think it's one of the most important thing we could do for our country.

fair and balanced?
Why do I care about this?  I've been trying to understand how our legislators could stop short of implementing a mandate that insurance companies cover autism.

I just had a big diatribe here about it, but I deleted it because I've said it all before (you're welcome).

I think there's a lot going on at the legislature that I don't understand...not necessarily nefarious, mind you.  I do know that there were quite a few lobbyists opposed to the issue.  The joke is that together those lobbyists were probably earning more than the cost of funding autism insurance reform for a couple of years.

I found a cool website that lets you track state campaign financing, based on reported numbers.  I'll have to go back to it this November and see how it looks for good old Utah.

Ok, this is not light reading.  Next time, I'll talk about birthday parties or something!


  1. I don't understand what any of this had to do with birthday parties and walkabouts.

    1. Yay, it's Jim!

      Ah, yes, you see the congress/lobbyist gift economy is quite analogous to the parent/child gift economy.


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