What $1 Billion Can Buy

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Punching in numbers on the calculator—that’s what the Center for Public Integrity’s been up to lately (in case you were wondering), and they’ve recently discovered that lobbyists and other special interest groups have spent nearly $1 billion in 2004 in statehouses around the country. Now that doesn’t sound like all that much, but it comes out to five lobbyists and $130,000 per legislator, influence that’s hard to resist. Certainly, then, legislatures ought to take CPI’s recommendations for “revolving door” and disclosure law changes seriously.

But all that money—can it ever be curbed? Probably not. Special interests will always be among us. On campaign finance, at least, I agree with the Heritage Foundation—there’s no way to limit the flow of money; it always finds a way. The 2004 election proved that, and recently-passed federal legislation, from the energy bill to the bankruptcy bill, proved that McCain-Feingold didn’t make Congress any less willing to jump in bed with big business. Meanwhile, publicly-financed campaigns, higher congressional salaries, and other ideas for limiting the demand for money may make “clean” elections a reality someday, but it seems very likely that no one will ever eradicate the horde of lobbyists hanging around state capitols and D.C., where the real action takes place. CPI’s proposed reforms, however nice, amount to one finger in a very leaky dike.

One to note, however, is that not all “special interests” should be painted with the same broad brush, as CPI tends to do. Corporations will try to buy influence—tax breaks, subsidies, loosened workplace restrictions—and labor unions will push right back and try to stop them. Both are “special interests,” yes, but it’s pretty clear that they’re not the same. Without hordes of lobbyists from groups like the AFL-CIO, or the NAACP, over the years, progressive change and liberal social reform in this country would have been much-diminished. So as useful as new restrictions on lobbying may be—at least to get much of this influence-peddling into the sunlight—I’m not sure that a government free of “special interests” would necessarily be a good thing.

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