Politics and Special Interests
Are special interests damaging American politics? Should special interest groups be banned from giving campaign donations and from lobbying politicians for their causes?
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No one who accepts money from someone else is truly free to serve the public good in a fair-minded w...
No one who accepts money from someone else is truly free to serve the public good in a fair-minded way. Running for election in the USA costs millions of dollars, needed to pay for a campaign organisation and television advertisements. When a politician relies on huge sums of money contributed by an interest group in order to run, his or her vote will naturally be influenced by the wishes of that organisation rather than by what is best for the country.
If a politician depended on only one source of funding, undue influence might be a possibility. But so many interest groups are active in Washington that politicians gets contributions from dozens, if not hundreds, of them. The influence of any one group, therefore is tiny; even a contribution of $10 000 is only a “drop in the bucket” when campaigns cost millions. In fact a bigger problem is the rise of very rich politicians (e.g. Steve Forbes, Michael Bloomberg, Jon Corzine). The funding interest groups can provide to talented but hard-up politicians means that elections are not dominated by the very wealthy.
The size of campaign donations has become so large that donors certainly expect some kind of payback...
The size of campaign donations has become so large that donors certainly expect some kind of payback. A manufacturers’ association will not give $100 000 away just as a gesture of good will; it expects to see its concerns favourably addressed in Congress. And what is good for a particular group of manufacturers may well be bad for the wider public interest. For example, protective tariffs (import taxes) on foreign compestitors may raise prices for consumers. Weaker health and safety rules may be bad for employees.
Charges of unfair influence are often vague and unsupported by facts. Watchdog organisations like to make statistical links between donations and votes, but that is not real evidence that votes have been “bought”. Don’t forget that actually buying votes is a crime and is vigorously prosecuted. Recently both lobbyists (e.g. Jack Abramoff) and politicians (e.g William Jefferson) have been found guilty and punished for giving and taking bribes. This shows the system works and will deter others from acting in the same way.
Lawmakers have long understood that the power of special interests can lead to corruption. More tha...
Lawmakers have long understood that the power of special interests can lead to corruption. More than fifty years ago, for example, Congress banned unions from acting to influence federal elections. But in recent years the creation of political action committees (PACs) and the growth of “soft money” have allowed special interest groups to break the spirit of the law while obeying its letter. PACs get round campaign funding rules by acting as middle-men between special interest groups and candidates. Soft money is used to organise voter registration or get-out-the-vote drives. In both cases candidates still benefit and will be expected to be grateful to the groups which have aided them.
Special interests are condemned for having too much influence, but the argument against them is badly flawed. When the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) give money to politicians’ election campaigns, it does not buy the votes of legislators who would have voted differently on reproductive issues. Rather, NARAL gives money to candidates who have already stated their support for policies in line with NARAL’s aims. Given that the other candidates in these races may well be opposed to NARAL’s interests, it makes sense for them to try to influence particular electoral contests.
Money buys access to politicians, who are more willing to make time for donors than for average citi...
Money buys access to politicians, who are more willing to make time for donors than for average citizens. Access leads naturally to influence. The average citizen is shortchanged by the current system, which favours cash-rich organisations. The result is legislation which is stuffed full of favours to interest groups. Such hand-outs, tax-breaks, exemptions from regulation, and protection from competition cost tax-payers billions every year and distort our economy. This is why a recent energy bill has been called “The no lobbyist left behind” bill.
People who want to kill special interest groups are usually thinking of groups that support things they dislike. Special interest groups cover the whole range of political opinion and represent many points of view. Indeed, the variety of groups with competing interests is an indication of a healthy and vigorous political system. Many speak for millions of voters so of course law-makers should consult them for their views and expert opinions. And after all, a Congressman can’t individually consult every one of their voters.
Organisations often spend hundreds of millions of dollars to lobby politicians. They would not give...
Organisations often spend hundreds of millions of dollars to lobby politicians. They would not give such sums if they did not think such spending made a difference in helping them get what they want. Again, money clearly is shaping legislation.
Individuals should organise themselves into groups to speak for them more effectively. Special interest groups do not just fund politicians, they also spend money connecting like-minded people with each other. They hire researchers, commission surveys, and employ full time campaigners and media experts who seek to change public opinion. All of this is part of free speech and free association – key rights of every citizen. After all, Congress passes laws that affect the daily lives of teachers, for example. Surely teachers have the right to have their voices heard – through their unions – when such laws are drawn up.
The influence of special interest groups is increasing. New campaign finance laws are needed to che...
The influence of special interest groups is increasing. New campaign finance laws are needed to check this growth and give politics back to the people. We should follow the British system, which puts severe limits on individual candidates’ spending and bans political television ads, but gives political parties free access to the national media for regulated political broadcasts.
The influence of big spending lobby groups on elections is actually getting smaller. Howard Dean’s “insurgency” in 2003 showed how millions of dollars can be raised via the internet from thousands of individual supporters giving small sums each. Now every serious candidate for national office wants to use the organising power of the web in this way. This makes them more independent of lobby groups in their fundraising. It also shows primary voters how much appeal they actually have to ordinary voters.
What do you think?