Let’s get one thing out of the way: lobbying in its current form is bribery. Sure, we can institute a middleman and use a different definition, but at the root of it all is an exchange of funds for influence – and it’s beginning to rot democratic institutions from the inside out.
While there is nothing inherently wrong with lobbying, the way it is used in contemporary politics has become something much more akin to bribing than anything else.
Yes, lobbying has been around since the dawn of the American government to encourage people to take an active part in the governance of their nation, but how did things get so bad? At what point did special interest groups get so powerful that the course of an entire nation was subjected to the whims of the few?
As far as America is concerned, the first lobbyists came with the first established formal government in the “New World” – and existed long before in other countries. Trade unions and businesses sought protections and assistance through governmental influence back then just as much as they do now, but the contemporary ecosystem is far more complex than it was some 200 years ago.
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It should be noted, that lobbying persists by the virtue that the exchange of funds does not occur in the same fashion as a bribe does – there is no formal exchange of funds when an expected service has been rendered. Instead, the money is put forth to the recipient by way of gifts and “charitable donations” toward things such as their campaign fund. As such, it doesn’t take much to see how such a system can be skewed to favor those who have money over those who lack it.
In a system of governance that is supposedly meant to represent all, it is the wealthy minority that can secure candidates to see their positions and agendas furthered. Not all of these agendas are malicious or at the expense of others, mind – but the quantity of funds necessary to participate within the grand game of politicking has risen astronomically.
In 1998, the total amount spent lobbying congressional members in the United States tallied $1.45 Billion. In 2010, that figure hit a whopping $3.50 Billion. Now, in 2017, the number has receded but remains at an astronomically high $2.43 Billion.
As the amount of funds that circulate within the realm of lobbying rise, so too do the funds necessary for an individual to run for a congressional seat. The result? Campaign costs that rise to millions of dollars in funds – funded by those that can afford to pick up the check: corporations.
We should take a moment to note that while we are focusing on the American governmental system here, this process is echoed throughout every country in the world – to lesser or greater public transparency. When the decorum of lobbying fails to mount an effective stage play, we are left with corrupt officials blatantly funneling funds to further their ends.
Lobbyists may benefit in their endeavor to be recognized as a “legal” from having a regulatory framework that oversees their actions – as all lobbyists must be registered with the House Clerk – but the path runs in a direct parallel to that of bribery.
With so much capital flowing into politics, the issues discussed on the floor always have a peculiar tendency to skew towards tax cuts for those that need them the least and the further bolstering of monopolies that already hold their respective industries in a vice grip. The best part about it? The results that these private interest groups and lobbyists see is directly proportionate to the amount of money which they funnel into their selected representatives. That’s right folks, the deeper that they can get a politician into their pocket, the more of a return they can expect to see on their investment.
This doesn’t always have to be strictly in the sense of financial compensation. Chevron spent millions of dollars lobbying for the Keystone Pipeline, and we all know how that turned out – despite the weeks of protest by South Dakota locals.
If you thought that we’d touch the bedrock of this reprehensible exchange, you’ve not seen anything yet. There is a facet to lobbying in government known as “The Revolving Door” – and it’s one of the main reasons why lobbyists continue to improve their brutal efficiency. When a congressman has reached the end of their career, they are often offered positions for the very lobbying firms that padded their wallets and stroked their egos during their terms.
On average, these Congressmen can go on to make over %1000 more than what they were making while working on the Hill. This ensures that firm continues to utilize the contacts that they’ve so expertly groomed over the years, and bolsters the firm’s capability to operate within a legislative environment by tapping into the resources of those that have spent years learning the ins and outs of the government machine. Around 50% of senators and 42% of representatives become lobbyist upon their departure from Congress.
This far in, and we’ve yet to even address PACs. While they may sound like something one would find in a Jason Bourne film fraught with conspiracy, they’re much more real. A PAC – or Political Action Committee – are a type of organization that are utilized to pool campaign contributions from donors and allocates those funds to support their chosen candidate win a campaign or help pass legislation once their selected candidate has won a seat.
While the formation and funding of PACs is available to any group of people, money is the name of the game – and corporations have plenty of it. As laudable as the foundational elements of a PAC are, the voices that get heard the most are the ones that have the most to give. Unfortunately for the plebs that make up most of the country’s population, the contributions are often a pittance in comparison.
In their defense, however, there have been instances in which massive crowdfunding from common folk has gone to great lengths – such as in the funding of Bernie Sander’s election campaign in 2016. The Independent-running-Democrat turned heads when he managed to accrue $228 million in funding from individual contributions averaging around $25 dollars. Bernie had a cause that rallied many, and his campaign funding put a new spin on what industry and fatcat-funded PACs have been doing for years.
The problem with lobbying, then, isn’t inherent in the system – it’s how it has been entrenched in a feedback loop to serve the few at the expense of the many. Coupled with exorbitant gift-giving, deeply-rooted personal relationships, and a Revolving Door to ensure a never-ending supply of well-trained lobbyists, and we wonder why so many are disenfranchised with the status of their governments.
The truly terrifying aspect lies not with how broken the American way of governing is, but how widespread the problem has become in highly-developed and industrialized countries. While a healthy economy is dependent on healthy and booming businesses, many First World countries are fighting the same battle: keeping corporations in check – a battle that we regretfully must concede is being lost.
In a true, democratic process, funding should not be the be all, end all. And yet, we cannot argue that capital is what makes the modern world go ‘round. Those that have it have their way, and those that don’t have to make do with what they have.
The world’s governments are far from total collapse, but the process of taking from the poor and giving to the rich, of rewriting legislation whenever it suits business plans, and of buying out and capturing politicians to have further sway is not something that is sustainable. In fact, we could argue that the last time so much of a nation’s means of production was seized by the elite few was during the French Revolution – and we all know how well those aristocrats fared.
We hate to say it, but we can’t sugarcoat it: things will get worse before they get better. With the decisions makers in the pockets of corporations and highly influential donors, nothing short of a massive sweep on corruption will do to begin remedying the problem. And yet, we cannot help but feel that the issue remains intrinsically linked with the concept of money. Perhaps, one day – in the far future – humanity will have achieved the utopian dream of living in a world without currency. One in which all can be easily produced for anyone to enjoy a la Star Trek.
Of course, we may as well be hoping for the collective lobotomization of the entire human race, as there is no way in hell that our egos will permit us to let go of our shining golden gated communities. And so, the wheel continues to turn, the money continues to flow, and we get to wake up each day reminded of how great it is to live within a democratic society. Ain’t life a peach?