We Don’t Have to be United States, Inc.

Photo by ToGa Wanderings


A couple of days ago, the New York Times reported that the super PACs backing President Obama had fallen far behind on fundraising, and it’s not clear they’re going to catch up with their Republican counterparts.

According to the Times, “Mr. Obama’s backers on Wall Street are leery of their money being used for attacks on Mr. Romney’s background in private equity, already the topic of millions of dollars’ worth of slash-and-burn advertising this year from a super PAC supporting Newt Gingrich.”

This statement suggests the degree to which the campaign cash arms race makes candidates beholden to donors. That arms race has grown far worse in recent years, thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, infamous for embracing corporate personhood as well as for opening elections to unlimited “outside” corporate spending.

But, as important as these dollars are, corporate influence over politics is about a lot more than campaign donations. Corporate actors have lots of methods for advancing their interests throughout the policy-making process.

In the New York Review of Books, Ezra Klein discusses two new publications on the way lobbying really works. One is Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig’s new book, Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It. The second is the memoir of Jack Abramoff, who in the subtitle of his book aptly refers to himself as “America’s most notorious lobbyist.”

However, as Ezra points out, a focus on the corrupt, cash-based quid pro quo that Abramoff’s case evokes obscures the role that corporate lobbying really plays in policy-making. Lobbying doesn’t buy votes, per se – it’s far worse than that. Lobbying helps set the legislative agenda to begin with.

It works like this: Crafting legislation to meet the needs of a large, complex society is hard. It takes knowledge beyond the reach of any one individual – meaning any one Senator and his or her staff – and corporations are happy to fill in the gaps with their “expertise.” That expertise comes in the form of lobbyists (and the industry-generated research they use to back up their claims).

It’s not surprising, then, that lobbyists wind up spending more time with their allies in Congress (or statehouses) than with those whose votes they need to win. Their work is about building relationships – and about influencing not just how lawmakers vote, but also what they talk about, how they talk about it, and, as Ezra puts it, the way they think.

And so, lobbyists flooding Congress aren’t there just to paper its walls with dollars. This isn’t a cash economy, Professor Lessig tells us, so much as a gift economy. By creating deep and lasting relationships with lawmakers, lobbyists influence the parameters of what can be considered “serious” debate. Proposals that benefit corporate clients acquire an air of reasonableness because, well, trustworthy lobbyist friends are telling you so. Policy proposals your lobbyist friends don’t like begin to look less reasonable.

Here’s how Ezra puts it:

[I]f one of your smartest, most persuasive friends, a friend you agree with on almost everything, is explaining to you that those environmentalist nuts are going too far again—they’re always doing that, aren’t they?—and they have sneakily tucked a provision into a bill that would make it more expensive for your constituents to buy electricity, that’s very persuasive.

The subtitle of Ezra’s review is “It’s Not All Money.” But, as Ezra writes, of course it does come back to money. It’s dollars that buy the lobbyists and that grease the gears of the revolving door (and that subsidize the think tank research reports and academic white papers that lend an air of legitimacy to the ideas the lobbyists are selling).

And this corporate force-field of influence hamstrings policy. The Affordable Care Act, the health reform legislation passed in 2010 after much public debate, includes many good things for many people. But it should have been more transformative than it wound up being, and we have corporate influence to thank for that. The public option, most notably, was stripped out before the debate really got going, despite overwhelming public support for it and despite evidence that it would have done a lot of good.

Ezra looks at it a little differently. He takes the fight over health reform as a sign that corporate influence has its limits. After the brawl and the hammering out of the final bill, the vote itself came down to partisanship and ideology. Similarly, the vote over financial reform also came down to party leadership, according to Ezra. “Which is to say,” he argues, “that while moneyed interests are decisive in passing laws and influencing provisions that few Americans care about, they’re much weaker on issues where Americans are actually watching.”

It’s up to us to show that this is true – and expand the zone of policy that corporations can’t touch – by watching and mobilizing and calling out corporate influence everywhere we see it, in all its forms.

That means looking for the fingerprints of big money on legislation and asking lawmakers to specifically explain why what’s good for corporations – such as scaling back effective corporate tax rates – should be considered good for the public as a whole. It means calling out corporate talking points (e.g., anything that fawningly refers to corporations as “job creators”) for what they are – self-serving language too easily internalized by electeds and the media.

And, of course, it means doing whatever we can (from requiring spending disclosure to amending the Constitution) to cleanse our electoral system of the stink of big money. Because, in the end, the money really does matter.


Affiliates of the Alliance for a Just Society are doing all this in their fights for economic and racial justice. Contact your local affiliate to learn more.

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