The Unequal Struggle For Influence

Hillary Clinton made some headlines earlier this week by making it clear she would support any action, up to and including a constitutional amendment, to bring campaign spending into the sunlight and under control. In the meantime, of course, she’s not going to “unilaterally disarm” and risk a huge Republican advantage in campaign spending in 2014.

But as Lee Drutman of New America notes today at the Monkey Cage, waiting for the distant vision of campaign finance reform to materialize misses the biggest problem in politics, one that needs urgent action on another front: the imbalance in lobbying resources, which goes above and beyond campaign contributions:

The amount of political activity on behalf of large corporations today is truly unprecedented. The $2.6 billion in reported corporate lobbying spending is now more than the combined under $2 billion budget for the entire Senate ($820 million) and the entire House ($1.16 billion).

Meanwhile, the types of organized interests who we might expect to provide a countervailing force to business — labor unions, groups representing diffuse public like consumers or taxpayers — spend $1 for every $34 businesses spend on lobbying, by my count. Of the 100 organizations that spend the most on lobbying annually, consistently 95 represent business….

This growing imbalance has had two major effects on the political system.

First, it is increasingly difficult to challenge any existing policy that benefits politically active corporations. Though corporate lobbying has become more ambitious and more aggressive over the years, the top priority for most corporate lobbyists is still preserving the status quo. When I surveyed corporate lobbyists on the reasons why their companies maintained a Washington presence, the top reason was “to protect the company against changes in government policy.” On a 1-7 scale, lobbyists ranked this reason at 6.2 (on average)

Second, the sheer amount of lobbying has created a policymaking environment that now requires significant resources to get anything done. Which means that, with increasingly rare exceptions, the only possible policy changes on economic policy issues are those changes that at least some large corporations support.

As you may recall, Drutman and Steven Teles wrote a piece for the current issue of the Washington Monthly discussing ways to strengthen the resistance of Congress to corporate lobbying, in part by creating larger, better-paid and more independent staff resources within Congress itself. It doesn’t sound all that dramatic, but unlike campaign finance reform, it’s an agenda that doesn’t require constitutional amendments or a slow change in the composition of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.