Last week on the Daily Show, Jon Stewart interviewed Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) on the general topic of influence and corruption in Congress. She described at some length the pervasive influence of Wall Street on Capitol Hill, noting that it’s not just about money, but the omnipresence of lobbyists at every stage of the lawmaking and regulatory process. “The wind only blows from one direction,” she claimed, saying that the playing field is massively tipped in Wall Street’s favor, and that more modest players really don’t have much of a chance. Lobbyists control everything.
But then she described her efforts to create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau back when she was just a Harvard Law School professor. She notes that when she shopped the idea around Capitol Hill, she got a lot of discouraging words from lawmakers. But she kept pushing:
We got organized. We started getting groups like… AARP and Consumer Reports and the AFL-CIO and NAACP and La Raza, and they all said, “You know, that’s not our first issue, but this stuff about cheating consumers, it comes somewhere in the things we care about.” They got organized, more than 100 groups got organized into Americans for Financial Reform. They pushed, and we got that consumer agency passed into law. We did it. People did it.
A few thoughts on this:
I have no doubt that the lobbyist saturation of the political system that Warren describes is real. But was there ever a time when making substantive changes in federal law was an easy thing to do? Was there ever a time when the pluralistic chorus didn’t, in Schattschneider’s words, sing with an upper-class accent? It seems to me that she’s not really diagnosing some illness in the American political system, but simply noting, as many have before her, that it’s hard, but not impossible, to change the law. This isn’t corruption. This is a diverse political system with lots of stakeholders who are all working very hard against each other in an institutional arrangement that favors the status quo. Calling your side “the people” and the other side “special interests” really doesn’t shed any light here.
[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]