We Pay A High Price for Special-Interest Lobbying

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Thursday, April 6, 2006
As Congress gets closer to imposing new limits on lobbyists, it's hard to miss the air of cheerful optimism that has settled over K Street. Despite the list of lobbyist-supplied attractions that House and Senate members appear ready to eliminate — meals, gifts, travel — you get the sense that well-heeled interests won't miss a beat in their unceasing efforts to get lawmakers' attention and compliance. 

This is because key lobbying strategies that money can buy these days are likely to remain untouched. These include campaign contributions, contributions to independent groups for election-season television advertising, gifts to think tanks and charities tied to lawmakers, and funds for "grass-roots" campaigns targeted at votes on Capitol Hill. Basically, if you've got money to spend on influencing the federal government, you've got little to fear from "lobby reform." That should worry the vast majority of us who don't have those kinds of resources. 

We pay a high price, both as a society and as individual citizens, for the kind of unchecked special-interest pleading that has become so common in Washington. 

Our system is built on the notion that citizens should have access to their representatives — and we do. But there is a difference between our letters, emails and attendance at the occasional town meeting, and the attention that the lobbying corps commands. 

There are some 35,000 lobbyists who now ply their trade in the halls of government. They spend, according to American University political scientist James A. Thurber, $10 billion a year on their activities; only $2 billion of this goes to actual salaries. The rest is used to buy — there's no other word for it — lawmakers' time and support. 

What do we as a nation get for this unbalanced "access"? In part, we get legislation that is clearly tilted in favor of those willing to invest a lot of money in order to reap even better returns. 

We get a tax code that is extraordinarily complex, that goes out of its way to favor particular interests, and that often costs the U.S. Treasury — you and me, in other words — billions of dollars in foregone revenue. 

We get the recent highway bill or the current federal budget, which spend billions of dollars on so-called "earmarks," or pork-barrel projects that may have a congressman's name on them but were often submitted on behalf of a lobbyist and his clients. 

And we get regulations or interpretations of federal law that favor those who are well-organized and rich enough to prevail over what most people would consider the national interest. As a heavily lobbied Transportation Department gets ready to issue new regulations on fuel standards for light trucks, for instance, does anyone actually believe it is good public policy to require just a small increase in miles per gallon, when there is a general consensus that stricter standards would be good for the air and reduce our dependence on foreign oil? 

But tax breaks, pollution, oil dependence, global warming and a host of bad public policy decisions are only the half of it. We pay an even higher price in the dislocation endured by our political system. We depend in a representative democracy on the accountability of our legislators and on knowing how they arrive at the decisions they make; yet weak reporting requirements undermine our ability to know all of the lobbying that aims to affect the votes of our representatives. 

We depend on the notion that our lawmakers owe their attention and their allegiance to the ordinary people who send them to Washington; yet it is getting easier every year to believe that the voters have been surpassed by big campaign contributors, corporations that put their private jets at legislators' disposal, and the lobbyists who organize these inducements. 

We depend on the idea that we, the people, can be heard in the halls of power, and that the interests of every side will be fairly weighed as legislation and regulations are crafted; yet if polls are to be believed, large numbers of Americans now believe they don't stand a chance against wealthy special interests. 

Special interests' impact on Washington is not, of course, all bad. Over the years, I have seen many "special interests" representing a broad cross-section of Americans contribute to our nation's advancement: leaders in business, labor, education, environment, religion, and civil rights. Many of them have made outstanding contributions to the common good. 

But in recent years, money and a willingness to spend it to promote narrow and particular interests have become the defining components of "clout" in Washington, and this has bred a level of cynicism about the system that is unmatched in my four decades of involvement in politics. 

That is unquestionably the most pernicious effect that special-interest lobbying has had on our system. We cannot sustain indefinitely this erosion in the integrity of our system. Someday, special-interest democracy and representative democracy will collide. Let us start working now to strengthen democracy of, by, and for all the people, not for just a few. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)