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:

  • This is precisely how big laws have always been conceived of and passed. They’re never easy to enact — even without the presence of industry lobbyists, our system has a large institutional bias in favor of the status quo. Making substantial change requires reaching out to potential allies and forging coalitions, with coalition members sometimes forgoing their top priorities in favor of a common agenda on which they can all agree and work.
  • Note how this story involves groups like NAACP and labor unions and La Raza changing the laws to benefit their members. That’s not inherently a bad thing. But the groups Warren describes as “the people” could easily be labeled by someone on the other side as “special interests.” Neither of those terms has any real descriptive value, beyond serving as a simple moralistic label. Any group wanting something out of government will pursue change (or protect the status quo) the same way, by building alliances and advocating for its members. It’s all policy demanders.
  • I hate to point this out, but Warren’s coalition actually won, even in the face of money and lobbyists and a massive headwind. Yes, it was hard, and yes, it took an unusual set of circumstances to make it happen, but victories are clearly possible. How easy should it really be to make substantive changes?
  • 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]

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    Seth Masket is an associate professor of political science at the University of Denver.