Fa­vors and Loot for Sale


At a July fundrais­ing event in Chicago, Mrs. Michelle Obama re­marked, “So, yeah, there’s too much money in pol­i­tics. There’s (sic) spe­cial in­ter­ests that have too much in­flu­ence.” Sen. John McCain has been com­plain­ing for years that “there is too much money wash­ing around po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns to­day.” Ac­cord­ing to a 2012 Reuters poll, “Sev­enty-five per­cent of Americans feel there is too much money in pol­i­tics.” Let’s think about money in pol­i­tics, but first a few facts.

Dur­ing the 2012 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, Barack Obama raised a lit­tle over $1 bil­lion, while Mitt Rom­ney raised a lit­tle un­der $1 bil­lion. Con­gres­sional can­di­dates raised over $3.5 bil­lion. In 2013, there were 12,341 regis­tered lob­by­ists and $3.2 bil­lion was spent on lob­by­ing. Dur­ing the years the Clin­tons have been in na­tional pol­i­tics, they’ve re­ceived at least $1.4 bil­lion in con­tri­bu­tions, ac­cord­ing to Time mag­a­zine and the Cen­ter for Re­spon­sive Pol­i­tics, mak­ing them “The First Fam­ily of Fundrais­ing.”

Here are my ques­tions to you: Why do peo­ple and or­ga­ni­za­tions cough up bil­lions of dol­lars to line po­lit­i­cal cof­fers? One might an­swer that th­ese groups and in­di­vid­u­als are sim­ply ex­traor­di­nar­ily civic-minded Americans who have a deep and abid­ing in­ter­est in en­cour­ag­ing elected of­fi­cials to live up to their oath of of­fice to up­hold and de­fend the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion. Another pos­si­ble an­swer is that the peo­ple who spend th­ese bil­lions of dol­lars on politi­cians just love par­tic­i­pat­ing in the po­lit­i­cal process. If you be­lieve ei­ther of th­ese ex­pla­na­tions for cough­ing up bil­lions for politi­cians, you’re prob­a­bly a can­di­date for psy­chi­atric at­ten­tion, a strait­jacket and a padded cell.

A far bet­ter ex­pla­na­tion for the bil­lions go­ing to the cam­paign cof­fers of Wash­ing­ton politi­cians and lob­by­ists lies in the awe­some gov­ern­ment power and con­trol over business, prop­erty, em­ploy­ment and other ar­eas of our lives. Hav­ing such power, Wash­ing­ton politi­cians are in the po­si­tion to grant spe­cial priv­i­leges, ex­tend fa­vors, change laws and do other things that if done by a pri­vate per­son would land him in jail. The ma­jor com­po­nent of con­gres­sional power is the use of the IRS to take the earn­ings of one Amer­i­can to give to another.

The Dow Chem­i­cal Co. posted record lob­by­ing ex­pen­di­tures last year, spend­ing over $12 mil­lion. Joined by Al­coa, who spent $3.5 mil­lion, Dow sup­ports the cam­paigns of con­gress­men who support nat­u­ral gas ex­port re­stric­tions. Nat­u­ral gas is a raw ma­te­rial for both com­pa­nies. They fear nat­u­ral gas prices would rise if ex­port re­stric­tions were lifted. Dow and other big users of nat­u­ral gas make char­i­ta­ble con­tri­bu­tions to en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists who seek to limit nat­u­ral gas ex­plo­ration. Nat­u­ral gas ex­port re­stric­tions em­power Rus­sia’s Vladimir Putin by mak­ing Euro­peans more de­pen­dent on Rus­sian nat­u­ral gas.

Gen­eral Elec­tric spends tens of mil­lions of dol­lars lob­by­ing. Part of their agenda was to help get Congress to out­law in­can­des­cent light bulbs so that they could sell their more ex­pen­sive com­pact flu­o­res­cent bulbs. It should come as no sur­prise that Gen­eral Elec­tric is a contributor to global warm­ers who helped con­vince Congress that in­can­des­cent bulbs were de­stroy­ing the planet.

Th­ese are just two ex­am­ples, among thou­sands, of the role of money in pol­i­tics. Most con­cerns about money in pol­i­tics tend to fo­cus on rel­a­tively triv­ial mat­ters such as the costs of run­ning for of­fice and in­ter­est-group in­flu­ence on Congress and the White House. The bedrock prob­lem is the awe­some power of Congress. We Americans have asked, de­manded and al­lowed con­gress­men to ig­nore their oaths of of­fice and ig­nore the con­sti­tu­tional lim­i­ta­tions im­posed on them. The greater the con­gres­sional power to give hand­outs and grant fa­vors and make spe­cial priv­i­leges the greater the value of be­ing able to in­flu­ence con­gres­sional decision-mak­ing. There’s no bet­ter in­flu­ence than money.

You say, “Wil­liams, you’ve ex­plained the prob­lem. What’s your so­lu­tion?” Maybe we should think about en­act­ing a law man­dat­ing that Congress can­not do for one Amer­i­can what it does not do for all Americans. For ex­am­ple, if Congress cre­ates a mo­nop­oly for one Amer­i­can, it should cre­ate a mo­nop­oly for all Americans. Of course, a bet­ter so­lu­tion is for Congress to obey our Con­sti­tu­tion.

Wal­ter E. Wil­liams is a pro­fes­sor of eco­nomics at George Ma­son Univer­sity. To find out more about Wal­ter E. Wil­liams and read fea­tures by other Cre­ators Syn­di­cate writ­ers and car­toon­ists, visit the Cre­ators Syn­di­cate Web page at www.cre­ators.com.

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