Beinstein column: Lobbying and an American Babylon
Read Robert Kaiser’s harrowing but illuminating book “So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government” and you’ll understand why Washington is so dysfunctional. It really is all about the money.
Although written in 2009, the book and its many anecdotes are still highly relevant. Let’s begin with the story of Boston University and a science building. In the early 1980s, the federal government was handing out money to sponsor scientific research. At the time Boston University had no need for any government funds. Still, it paid a handsome price for a good Washington lobbyist. Why?
John Silber, former president of Boston University, reasoned, “If you take $27 million, that would bring in, at 5 percent [interest], about $1.35 million a year.” With a top lobbying firm then collecting $300,000 annually, BU was taking in more money from interest payments than from what it paid its lobbyists.
“That first grant, by itself, produced twice as much as was necessary” to pay for all of BU’s lobbying, Silber said. “So if you talk about a cost analysis, it’s a damn good investment.”
Another revealing story concerns wasteful Pentagon spending. In January 1992, President George H.W. Bush wanted to eliminate $2.8 billion in funds for Seawolf attack submarines that were really only meant to be used against the Soviet Union. With the Cold War over, Bush rightfully argued the $2.8 billion was completely unnecessary.
No bother. General Dynamics, whose bottom line would’ve been hurt without the Seawolf spending, spent a fortune on lobbying — they blitzed all kinds of media, huddled up all the New England senators whose states would be hurt by ensuing job losses, and trained certain people in testimony in front of Congress. Somehow, according to former Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, if the Seawolf were abandoned, America would lose its “capacity to build submarines.” Despite the protests of Sen. John McCain and administration officials, Dodd’s dubious logic prevailed and General Dynamics got its $2.8 billion.
Kaiser’s other really good work, “Act of Congress,” shows the same phenomenon at play — money and Washington corruption.
During negotiations over the Dodd-Frank bill, former Rep. Barney Frank told then Speaker Nancy Pelosi that with 70 members, the Financial Services Committee was too big and needed to be downsized. Although she originally agreed with Frank, she wouldn’t downsize the committee because “she wanted to put members of the classes of ’06 and ’08 on financial services, known as ‘a money committee,’ from which it was easier to raise campaign contributions.”
As Kaiser writes, “the financial interests that cared most about [this committee’s work] had a lot of money to donate.”
And for anybody who doesn’t think campaign contributions influence the way a member of Congress votes, think again. In the 2002 midterms, for example, the GOP received $7.7 million from drug companies. After a new, unfunded $1 trillion prescription drug package was passed, the GOP received $12 million for the 2004 elections.
Or, take a look at the infamous 2005 Bankruptcy Bill, which prioritized a debtor’s payments to his creditor over his or her alimony payments. The 18 Senate Democrats who voted for the bill collected, on average, $51,200 in campaign contributions from the banking and credit card companies before the vote. For the Democrats that voted against the bill, they received on average $20,200 from those same companies. So yes, two things are clear: We as a nation care more about our banks than our kids, and Congress is, quite simply, up for sale.
Anyone familiar with the Federalist Papers knows every member of Congress should be in touch with the wealthiest interests of his or her district or state — advocating on behalf of those interests in Washington is the surest way to maximize wealth and jobs for a lawmaker’s constituents. Nevertheless, the degree to which lobbying is corroding our legislative process is hurting everybody and, ironically enough, might hurt the richest among us the most. The greater our national debt becomes, the more likely inflation becomes, which, by definition, will erode the value of all our assets. Inflation, ipso facto, is the easiest way to negate a man’s worth.
One of the most moving lines in the Book of Isaiah is “Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, till there be no place, that they may be placed alone in the midst of the earth!” The greed for Washington help and Washington money is poisoning the economic welfare of this great country. Perhaps if the Scriptures were adopted for Washington and special interests, it’d be written, “Woe unto them that adds lobbying to more lobbying, until we no longer have a Republic.” Then, maybe, a better day would await us all. Otherwise, America, the once last great hope, might be placed alone in the midst of the earth.
Alex Beinstein of Carbondale was a Republican primary congressional candidate in 2016 challenging incumbent Scott Tipton. His column appears monthly in the Post Independent.
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