We all know lobbying is corrupt. What can we do about it?

JDN 2457439

It’s so well-known as to almost seem cliche: Our political lobbying system is clearly corrupt.

Juan Cole, a historian and public intellectual from the University of Michigan, even went so far as to say that the United States is the most corrupt country in the world. He clearly went too far, or else left out a word; the US may well be the most corrupt county in the First World, though most rankings say Italy. In any case, the US is definitely not the most corrupt country in the whole world; no, that title goes to Somalia and/or North Korea.

Still, lobbying in the US is clearly a major source of corruption. Indeed, economists who study corruption often have trouble coming up with a sound definition of “corruption” that doesn’t end up including lobbying, despite the fact that lobbying is quite legal. Bribery means giving politicians money to get them to do things for you. Lobbying means giving politicians money and asking them to do things. In the letter of the law, that makes all the difference.

One thing that does make a difference is that lobbyists are required to register who they are and record their campaign contributions (unless of course they launder—I mean reallocate—them through a Super PAC of course). Many corporate lobbyists claim that it’s not that they go around trying to find politicians to influence, but rather politicians who call them up demanding money.

One of the biggest problems with lobbying is what’s called the revolving doorpoliticians are often re-hired as lobbyists, or lobbyists as politicians, based on the personal connections formed in the lobbying process—or possibly actual deals between lobbying companies over legislation, though if done explicitly that would be illegal. Almost 400 lobbyists working right now used to be legislators; almost 3,000 more worked as Congressional staff. Many lobbyists will do a tour as a Congressional staffer as a resume-builder, like an internship.

Studies have shown that lobbying does have an impact on policy—in terms of carving out tax loopholes it offers a huge return on investment.

Our current systems to disinventize the revolving door are not working. While there is reason to think that establishing a “cooling-off period” of a few years could make a difference, under current policy we already have some cooling-off periods and it’s clearly not enough.

So, now that we know the problem, let’s start talking about solutions.

Option 1: Ban campaign contributions

One possibility would be to eliminate campaign contributions entirely, which we could do by establishing a law that nobody can ever give money or in-kind favors to politicians ever under any circumstances. It would still be legal to meet with politicians and talk to them about issues, but if you take a Senator out for dinner we’d have to require that the Senator pay for their own food and transportation, lest wining-and-dining still be an effective means of manipulation. Then all elections would have to be completely publicly financed. This is a radical solution, but it would almost certainly work. MoveOn has a petition you can sign if you like this solution, and there’s a site called public-campaign-financing.org that will tell you how it could realistically be implemented (beware, their webmaster appears to be a time traveler from the 1990s who thinks that automatic music and tiled backgrounds constitute good web design).

There are a couple of problems with this solution, however:

First, it would be declared Unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Under the (literally Orwellian) dicta that “corporations are people” and “money is speech” established in Citizens United vs. FEC, any restrictions on donating money to politicians constitute restrictions on free speech, and are therefore subject to strict scrutiny.

Second, there is actually a real restriction on freedom here, not because money is speech, but because money facilitates speech. Since eliminating all campaign donations would require total public financing of elections, we would need some way of deciding which candidates to finance publicly, because obviously you can’t give the same amount of money to everyone in the country or even everyone who decides to run. It simply doesn’t make sense to provide the same campaign financing for Hillary Clinton that you would for Vermin Supreme. But then, however this mechanism works, it could readily be manipulated to give even more advantages to the two major parties (not that they appear to need any more). If you’re fine with having exactly two parties to choose from, then providing funding for their, say, top 5 candidates in each primary, and then for their nominee in the general election, would work. But I for one would like to have more options than that, and that means devising some mechanism for funding third parties that have a realistic shot (like Ralph Nader or Ross Perot) but not those who don’t (like the aforementioned Vermin Supreme)—but at the same time we need to make sure that it’s not biased or self-fulfilling.

So let’s suppose we don’t eliminate campaign contributions completely. What else could we do that would curb corruption?

Option 2: Donation caps and “Democracy Credits”

I particularly like this proposal, self-titled the American Anti-Corruption Act (beware self-titled laws: USA PATRIOT ACT, anyone?), which would require full transparency—yes, even you, Super PACs—and place reasonable caps on donations so that large amounts of funds must be raised from large numbers of people rather than from a handful of people with a huge amount of money. It also includes an interesting proposal called “Democracy Credits” (again, the titles are a bit heavy-handed), which are basically an independent monetary system, used only to finance elections, and doled out exactly equally to all US citizens to spend on the candidates they like. The credits would then be exchangeable for real money, but only by the candidates themselves. This is a great idea, but sadly I doubt anyone in our political system is likely to go for it.

Actually, I would like to see these “Democracy Credits” used as votes—whoever gets the most credits wins the election, automatically. This is not quite as good as range voting, because it is not cloneproof or independent of irrelevant alternatives (briefly put, if you run two candidates that are exactly alike, their votes get split and they both lose, even if everyone likes them; and similarly, if you add a new candidate that doesn’t win you can still affect who does end up winning. Range voting is basically the only system that doesn’t have these problems, aside from a few really weird “voting” systems like “random ballot”). But still, it would be much better than our current plurality “first past the post” system, and would give third-party candidates a much fairer shot at winning elections. Indeed, it is very similar to CTT monetary voting, which is provably optimal in certain (idealized) circumstances. Of course, that’s even more of a pipe dream.

The donation caps are realistic, however; we used to have them, in fact, before Citizens United vs. FEC. Perhaps future Supreme Court decisions can overturn it and restore some semblance of balance in our campaign finance system.

Option 3: Treat campaign contributions as a conflict of interest

Jack Abramoff, a former lobbyist who was actually so corrupt he got convicted for it, has somewhat ironically made another proposal for how to reduce corrupting in the lobbying system. I suppose he would know, though I must wonder what incentives he has to actually do this properly (and corrupt people are precisely the sort of people with whom you should definitely be looking at the monetary incentives).

Abramoff would essentially use Option 1, but applied only to individuals and corporations with direct interests in the laws being made. As Gawker put it, “If you get money or perks from elected officials, […] you shouldn’t be permitted to give them so much as one dollar.” The way it avoids requiring total public financing is by saying that if you don’t get perks, you can still donate.

His plan would also extend the “cooling off” idea to its logical limit—once you work for Congress, you can never work for a lobbying organization for the rest of your life, and vice versa. That seems like a lot of commitment to ask of twentysomething Congressional interns (“If you take this job, unemployed graduate, you can never ever take that other job!”), but I suppose if it works it might be worth it.

He also wants to establish term limits for Congress, which seems pretty reasonable to me. If we’re going to have term limits for the Executive branch, why not the other branches as well? They could be longer, but if term limits are necessary at all we should use them consistently.

Abramoff also says we should repeal the 17th Amendment, because apparently making our Senators less representative of the population will somehow advance democracy. Best I can figure, he’s coming from an aristocratic attitude here, this notion that we should let “better people” make the important decisions if we want better decisions. And this sounds seductive, given how many really bad decisions people make in this world. But of course which people were the better people was precisely the question representative democracy was intended to answer. At least if Senators are chosen by state legislatures there’s a sort of meta-representation going on, which is obviously better than no representation at all; but still, adding layers of non-democracy by definition cannot make a system more democratic.

But Abramoff really goes off the rails when he proposes making it a conflict of interest to legislate about your own state.Pork-barrel spending”, as it is known, or earmarks as they are formally called, are actually a tiny portion of our budget (about 0.1% of our GDP) and really not worth worrying about. Sure, sometimes a Senator gets a bridge built that only three people will ever use, but it’s not that much money in the scheme of things, and there’s no harm in keeping our construction workers at work. The much bigger problem would be if legislators could no longer represent their own constituents in any way, thus defeating the basic purpose of having a representative legislature. (There is a thorny question about how much a Senator is responsible for their own state versus the country as a whole; but clearly their responsibility to their own state is not zero.)

Even aside from that ridiculous last part, there’s a serious problem with this idea of “no contributions from anyone who gets perks”: What constitutes a “perk”? Is a subsidy for solar power a perk for solar companies, or a smart environmental policy (can it be both?)? Does paying for road construction “affect” auto manufacturers in the relevant sense? What about policies that harm particular corporations? Since a carbon tax would hurt oil company profits, are oil companies allowed to lobby against it on the ground that it is the opposite of a “perk”?

Voting for representatives who will do things you want is kind of the point of representative democracy. (No, New York Post, it is not “pandering” to support women’s rights and interestswomen are the majority of our population. If there is one group of people that our government should represent, it is women.) Taken to its logical extreme, this policy would mean that once the government ever truly acts in the public interest, all campaign contributions are henceforth forever banned. I presume that’s not actually what Abramoff intends, but he offers no clear guidelines on how we would distinguish a special interest to be excluded from donations as opposed to a legitimate public interest that creates no such exclusion. Could we flesh this out in the actual legislative process? Is this something courts would decide?

In all, I think the best reform right now is to put the cap back on campaign contributions. It’s simple to do, and we had it before and it seemed to work (mostly). We could also combine that with longer cooling-off periods, perhaps three or five years instead of only one, and potentially even term limits for Congress. These reforms would certainly not eliminate corruption in the lobbying system, but they would most likely reduce it substantially, without stepping on fundamental freedoms.

Of course I’d really like to see those “Democracy Credits”; but that’s clearly not going to happen.


One thought on “We all know lobbying is corrupt. What can we do about it?

  1. Hi Patrick: I like what I see here–thoughtful, well informed. And I wish I had the time and financial security to participate more fully.

    Your critiques of the campaign financing system are valid, but don’t go far enough. The political system is so deeply corrupt in many more ways than just campaign finance, it’s hard to see how it can be mended by well-meaning policies. As you point out at several turns, possible reforms are very unlikely to pass. In fact, I’d say none of the options have much chance of success. Barring the possibility of a progressive election victory, perhaps landslide, and the substitution of Scalia with a progressive on the Supreme Court, I’d say there is no chance of success and highly limited chance of success even with such turns of events. In addition, our civilization is headed toward potentially catastrophic reckonings related to the environment (climate change etc.) and both the economic (the end of work; race to the bottom on wages) and political systems (elimination of middle class, end of even our limited form of democracy). I suspect the only way to reverse the current situation and what is coming is a mass social movement that mobilizes a sizable fraction of the public to address an intolerable situation. Of course, that’s unlikely as well, just more likely to fix things than the alternatives.


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