Since the beginning of our nation, there has been a well-designed, methodical process for creating laws, structured to maximize democracy as much as possible. This process is designed to keep out private interests and promote the public interest, also known as the general will. But what happens when the lines between public and private interests become skewed? When the process of law can be disrupted and influenced by a few? Today we face the results: the practice of lobbying is corrupting our democratic system of legislation. What will happen when the private interests supersede the public interests? Democracy will have fallen.
How is a federal bill passed? Those familiar with American government know that a proposed bill must go through a lengthy process to become law. Bills must be approved by both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Senators or representatives vote as they see fit to best meet the will of the citizens they represent. If the proposed legislation manages to get through both the House and the Senate, it reaches the desk of the president, who has the option to approve or veto it. But, due to a loose interpretation of the First Amendment, there is a fourth, more subversive group involved in lawmaking – the lobbyists.
Although not included anywhere in our Constitution, and thus given no voting power, they discreetly influence lawmakers, thereby affecting the legislative process. It’s important to know exactly what powers lobbyists have and what roles they can play in government. Lobbyists can personally petition members of Congress regarding topics of interest to those they represent, “helping” lawmakers make decisions on proposed legislation. They can also give testimony in Congress and draft letters of recommendation for federal grants to certain companies, which the senators send as their own letters in order to make sure the company seeking the grant gets “extra” attention (Meyers and Associates). Already this is sounding questionable.
In 2011, there were 12,651 lobbyists in Washington, who spent $3.3 billion lobbying for their causes, according to OpenSecrets.org’s Lobbying Database. To say that the practice of lobbying in our country is no small phenomenon would be a gross understatement. In fact, most large corporations use lobbying – but for very different reasons than our founding fathers would have imagined. This practice of petitioning senators and representatives goes beyond seeking federal grants and earmarks (basically free handouts from the government).
Companies use lobbyists to twist the law for their own gain, block laws not in their interest, and support legislation in their favor. The problem with lobbying is that anyone with enough money and a well-armed team of lobbyists and lawyers can influence the law-making process. A company or business should have no say in government aside from the individual votes of people from that company. When a company is given more weight and importance than a single voter, as often happens, I believe we have an abuse of democracy. One of the tactics the lobbying industry employs is the “revolving door” technique (OpenSecrets). Coming out of the revolving door are past government officials – ex-senators, clerks, and the like.
They become lobbyists known as “revolvers,” who already have intimate knowledge of how the law-making process works and, more importantly, how senators and representatives think. In their arsenal are numerous contacts, “get in free” passes, and hefty payment from their employers as extra motivation. Going in the revolving door are former lobbyists to take new seats as federal agents, clerks, and department heads. Now, with influence on both the inside and the outside, the lobbying industry is sitting in a very nice spot indeed. Another lobbying technique is more controversial and constitutionally problematic.
It’s become a huge practice lately and is seen as almost necessary not only by lobbyists, but by elected officials. It’s used once campaign time rolls around. You might not realize just how much it costs to run for office, but it’s a lot – millions, just to get in the game – with no guarantee of victory. The majority of that money rarely comes from their own pockets. For instance, Republican Meg Whitman spent a record $160 million in her race for governor of California, only to lose. Not to be outdone, in his 2008 presidential campaign then-Senator Obama spent $745 million, according to OpenSecrets.
Much of this money comes from individual contributions, but when businesses, corporations, or agencies donate to a candidate, they improve his or her chance of winning. And once handouts are given, businesses expect favors in return, including earmarks in the next bills that come through Congress. The current practice of lobbying is certainly not what our Constitution intended. Our government can work for us and, in truth, has taken steps to regulate lobbying. In the past few decades lobbying has become more transparent.
Lobbyists must register and report their intentions and spending. Because of this, anyone can get information about almost any lobbyists and their actions. Greater restrictions have also been placed on lobbyists working for the government and federal spending on lobbying. While these improvements are positive, I believe they don’t change the fact that lobbying is anti-democratic and does more damage than good to public interests. Of course, I am not saying that all lobbying is harmful.
Some is done by senators themselves, and is a legitimate practice, if done properly. Many lobbyists work for public interest groups or political parties. All major environmental groups have lobbyists, and many workers’ unions do too. These groups are simply trying to balance the scales, scales almost irrevocably tipped by the impossible weight of corporate influence. What needs to be distinguished in government is the difference between activism and anti-democratic lobbying. Instead of allowing our elected officials to be manipulated into making choices they might not otherwise make, we should be the ones influencing the lawmaking process.
We can pick up the telephone or write a letter to “petition government” right from the comfort of our homes. I can even go down to my state capitol and meet with my members of Congress to personally petition them. I can also have thousands of people sign my petitions. This is influence, but it’s the sort that comes from individuals with voting power. Cutting the middleman (the lobbyist) and corporate influence out of lawmaking is necessary for democracy to work properly.
Let’s take control back; let’s put the power back into the hands of the people. Let democracy reign once more.