The illegal lobbying practices of Jack Abramoff have generated a great deal of press coverage and both parties are scrambling to introduce legislation that would tighten up lobbying restrictions. But in all this activity, the real story about what is wrong with the lobbying system has been largely ignored. The real scandal is that the entire lobbying process has become little more than a legalized form of corruption in which political influence is routinely bought by those interests who have the largest financial resources.
Lobbying in Washington has become a political game dominated almost entirely by well-funded special interests--a game in which average Americans are rarely able to compete effectively. Many groups lobby in Washington, but not all lobbying organizations are born equal. Some have much larger and more reliable sources of money, and this greatly tilts the lobbying process in favor of these more wealthy interests.
Money buys many important advantages in lobbying. It allows well-funded groups to have larger offices with more support staff. It allows them to sponsor more policy research that will enable them to make their case more persuasively. More money also buys more effective and more expensive lobbyists--particularly retired members of Congress who are still friendly with their former colleagues.
More important, money allows some special interests to create many 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 of these firms also enjoy multiple avenues of representation. Most businesses, for instance, belong to trade groups that also lobby in Washington. General Electric belongs to more than 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 more than a staggering 75% of all lobbying efforts.
In contrast, public interest organizations that operate on shoe-string budgets--such as environmentalists, consumer groups, and civic organizations--make up a miniscule 4% of lobbying groups. Even more disturbing, 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.
Ideally the lobbying community should accurately mirror all the various interests present in American society. But because of vast differences in funding, today's lobbying system resembles an image found in one of those fun-house mirrors--a distorted reflection in which the interests of the well-off appear large and robust, and the interests of most Americans appear thin and emaciated.
To make matters worse, money not only buys more lobbying groups for special interests, it also buys them more access to members of Congress. The key to access is often campaign contributions. Politicians and lobbyists have long maintained that the purpose of campaign contributions is not to buy the votes of policymakers, but simply to ensure access and the chance for lobbyists make their case in person. And not surprisingly, studies have shown that which lobbyists get in to see policymakers and how much time they get is often directly related to the size of their campaign contributions.
These door-opening contributions are also dominated by affluent interests. To pick just one example of this inequity, environmental political action committees managed to contribute $688,000 to various Congressional races in 2004--not bad for a grassroots movement dependent on voluntary individual contributions. But the PACs for several industries that often fight against increased environmental regulations (energy and natural resources, construction, chemical, and automotive) contributed 60 times that amount: $42 million. It's not hard to guess which groups are now getting better access and a better opportunity to push their legislative priorities.
This bias in lobbying toward well-funded special interests helps explain why Congress continues to relentlessly pursue an agenda of tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy while cutting budgets for social programs. They do this despite the fact that polls show that the public has little interest in more tax cuts and actually wants the government to spend more on education, health care, and the environment. It is clear who Washington is listening to--and it is not us.
So the real issue with lobbying in this country is not the activities of a few dishonest lobbyists and members of Congress. The entire lobbying process itself has become a corrupt racket in which private money is relentlessly transformed into public influence. But few politicians want to recognize this problem. It raises deeply disturbing questions about how money is buying political power, and why money is distributed so unfairly and unequally among various interests in our society. Yet these are precisely the issues that must be faced by those who still believe that our lawmaking process should be a democratic one in which all Americans have an equal voice.
Douglas J. Amy is a professor of politics at Mount Holyoke College.