What is Really Wrong with Government

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How Private Power Becomes Public Power

There are a number of troubling ways that private power is being turned into public power. Typically it involves large amounts of money. Money is the handiest and most versatile form of power because it can buy so many different forms of political influence. It can buy advantages for political candidates, fund massive lobbying efforts, and produce volumes of politically useful information and analysis. Let’s consider each of these things in turn.

Financing Campaigns. Winning office today requires a lot of money, so campaign contributions now play a very crucial role in the election process. For instance, contributions help determine who can run for office in the first place. As the APSA report explains: “To win a seat in national office, the incumbent and challenger usually have to win the support of funders before they go before voters. The effect can be to discourage certain kinds of challengers who, for instance, promote egalitarian policies that would redistribute resources from affluent campaign contributors.”9 In other words, candidates who don’t support the priorities of wealthy contributors often can’t amass the resources necessary to make a viable run for office.

More importantly, donations can buy candidates many advantages – like larger campaign staffs, more high-priced consultants, more media time, and better ads – in their pursuit of voter support. Candidates with more money simply have a much better chance of attracting voters and beating their opponents. Contributions to campaigns, then, are an extremely important form of political influence – they play a significant role in determining who wins office. But this influence is wielded disproportionately by affluent individuals and organizations.

For instance, the campaign donations of political action committees come primarily from organizations that are financially well-off. Corporate and industry trade PACS now far outnumber and out-donate all other interest groups. In the 2008 elections, for instance, these business-oriented PACs outnumbered Labor PACs by almost ten to one and outspent them by four to one – $321 million to $73 million.10 Or consider the uphill battle faced by grassroots interest groups like environmentalists. In 2008, environmental PACs contributed $811,000 to various races. But the PACs for several industries that often fight against increased environmental regulations (energy and natural resources, construction, chemical, and automotive) contributed 50 times that amount -- $40 million.11 It’s not hard to guess which groups are more able to help elect their preferred candidates.

This corporate dominance of campaign funding was made even worse by a 2010 Supreme Court ruling that overturned the longstanding ban on corporations spending directly on political campaigns. They are now able to spend as much money as they want to defeat candidates they oppose and to threaten elected officials who don't share their political priorities.

Supporters of our current financing system like to point out that many contributions come from individuals – not PACs or corporations. This seems to suggest that it is the average American voter who is financing most campaigns. Nothing could be farther from the truth. There is a huge class bias to these donations. In 2002, 83% of all the itemized donations to campaigns were given by less than one-half of one percent of the U.S. population. And almost three-fourths of these total donations ($1.9 billion) came from a relatively small group of well-off Americans who could afford to donate $2,300 or more.12 This is not public participation – this is rich people’s participation.

Recently, some have argued that the emergence of groups like MoveOn.org has signaled a switch to a more grassroots and democratic approach to funding campaigns. And in 2008, that organization did manage to raise $38 million through the use of the internet and local meetings. But in reality, this figure is a drop in the bucket compared to the $2.2 billion spent by campaigns that year.

So campaign finance is a perfect example of how the concentration of money in the private sector leads to imbalances of power in the public sector. This situation directly undermines the democratic nature of elections. Who gets elected should be determined by the voters, not by well-heeled donors whose contributions give their preferred candidates large and unfair advantages over others. Wealthy individuals and organizations should not have more say over who get elected than the rest of us.

These skewed donations not only affect whose candidates win office, but the behavior of political parties as well. The Democratic and Republican parties are supposed to be rivals that represent very different constituencies. But both have become increasing dependent on wealthy donors and business PACs. This has pushed the Democratic Party farther to the right and has made it less responsive to many of its less affluent constituents, such as workers, minorities, and the poor. Not only elections, but parties are becoming less democratic as well.


Lobbying. Another major source of political influence is lobbying – organized efforts to sway the decisions of policymakers. Lobbying largely determines whose problems and concerns get the attention of policymakers, and whose arguments get a better hearing. In the last thirty years, more and more groups have established lobbying offices in Washington – groups representing environmentalists, gays, the elderly, farmers, consumers, and so on. This gives the appearance of a fair and healthy competition between all interests. But this is only an illusion.

First, not all lobbying organizations are born equal, and the competition between them does not take place on a level playing field. Again, money is what makes the difference. Some lobbies have much larger and more reliable sources of funds, and this tilts this political process in favor of these more wealthy interests. Interests with more money can, for instance, create more lobbying groups to promote their cause. It is hardly a coincidence that the majority of organizations lobbying in Washington, D.C. are corporations. Many these firms also enjoy multiple avenues of representation. Most businesses, for instance, belong to trade groups who also lobby in Washington. General Electric belongs to over 80 trade organizations – most of which also have lobbying arms. If you add together all the corporations, trade groups, and well-off professional organizations (doctors, lawyers, etc.), they make up over a staggering 75% of all lobbying efforts. In contrast, public interest organizations like environmentalists, consumer groups, and civic organizations make up only 4% of lobbying groups. Even more stunning, if you add together unions, civil rights groups, the elderly, women, educational groups, farmers, and veterans, they make up less than 10% of lobbying efforts.13

Not only does more money fund more lobbying efforts, it also pays for larger offices with more staff and better support. More money also buys more effective and more expensive lobbyists – particularly retired members of Congress who are still friendly with their former colleagues on the hill. Money also makes is easier from some lobbyists to get direct access to policymakers. Members of Congress are very busy and can’t see everyone who knocks on their door. But lobbyists with direct access to policymakers have a much better ability to make their case. Studies show that who gets in and how much time they get is often directly related to the size of their campaign contributions.14

Given all this, it is little wonder that two of our leading scholars on interest groups activity, Kay Schlozman and John Tierney, have concluded that the lobbying process “is skewed in favor of groups representing the well-off, especially business, and against groups favoring broad public interests and the disadvantaged.”15


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