About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Let’s talk about bribery, I mean lobbying

When I moved to the United States almost twenty (!!) years ago, one of the fascinating aspects of my new adventure was to note what was different and what was similar between the US and Europe. There were (and still are) plenty of things that impressed me positively about this country (after all, I decided to stay). But one thing struck me immediately as odd, and I now think it represents the single most dangerous threat to American democracy: lobbying.

You see, in Italy we would call that bribery, it is done under the table, and governments fall because of it, with politicians going to jail. In the United States, on the other hand, bribery is legal under the misguided concept that groups and corporations have “personhood,” and are therefore entitled to Constitutional protections, including freedom of speech and political representation. (This is the same insane idea that for a long time allowed unrestricted protection of tobacco advertisement, to name one of the most egregious cases.)

National Public Radio, one of the few reasonably reliable media outlets left in the country, is running a series entitled “Dollar Politics” in which they ask: “Lawmakers juggle the work of crafting legislation with their other big job — raising money to get re-elected. And that money often comes from the industries that will gain or lose from that legislation. Is it just the way the system works, or is it bribery?” Well, clearly both! Lobbying certainly is the way the system works, but how on earth can anyone characterize this sort of system as anything other than bribery?

Just look at some of the facts. According to NPR, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (a lobbying group) whose rather ominous acronym is PhRMA, spent $3 million each week lobbying members of Congress during three months of debate on healthcare reform. Or consider so-called “blue dog” Democratic Senator Max Baucus, who has been single-handedly holding a healthcare bill hostage in his committee. He is not only in the pocket of various industries, but he has a long history of securing jobs for his former aids with the very industries which are helped by the legislation he writes. But Baucus has been elected by the people of Montana, and his duty should be to work for their interests, not for those of the healthcare lobby.

What we are told by politicians over and over again, of course, is that contributions from lobbyists buy access, not votes. Really? First of all, why should rich and powerful interest groups have more access to elected officials than you and me? Isn’t that a profoundly anti-democratic idea for the self-professed best democracy in the world? Second, if access didn’t buy votes then PhRMA, the NRA and other lobbying organizations would be a bunch of fools who are wasting a lot of money for nothing. If you believe that, I live not far from a beautiful bridge in Brooklyn that I can sell you real cheap.

What is particularly damning about this is that we are not even having a conversation about it. During the 2008 Presidential campaign, there was a lot of talk about cutting “pork” spending by Congress, reigning in the somewhat unfortunate (but actually not always unjustified) tendency of elected officials to attach spending provisions to any bill that has nothing to do with the bill itself and is meant instead to bring money to their own district (think Sarah Palin’s “bridge to nowhere,” of which she was in favor before she was against). That could easily be fixed with a stroke of the pen by simply passing legislature that prohibits any expenditure in a bill that is not directly related to the subject matter of the bill itself. Problem solved (but it won’t happen).

About lobbying, i.e. bribing, however, we are not even talking, except for the occasional NPR piece (but who listens to NPR except for cappuccino-drinking-Chardonnay-sipping-Kindle-reading-iPhone-wielding-MacBook-sporting liberals anyway?). A few years ago Greg Palast wrote a book with a wonderful title: The Best Democracy Money Can Buy. Although Palast focused on the corruption of the Bush administration in particular and on the Republican party more broadly, the Democrats are not immune from the disease either. Besides the already mentioned Baucus, take Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, who is at the forefront of the healthcare reform attempt. His office recently released a series of ads mocking Washington lobbyists, while at the same time inviting health care lobbyists to his fundraising events.

Here is just how duplicitous Dodd really is. In his ad one can hear the following quote from an article that appeared in Roll Call, a newspaper that covers Washington politics: “Financial industry lobbyist on Dodd's leadership: ‘It's very scary for lobbyists and for the industry in general.’” That seems to imply that Dodd is feared by lobbyists because he won’t tolerate interference from special interests. Think again. The point of the article actually was that Dodd is trying to show himself tough on lobbyists for the specific and limited goal of being re-elected, beyond which presumably things will go back to normal. This is the complete quote from the article, according to NPR: “‘If he'd won his election and he was looking at these issues with a full six-year term in front of him, he'd be taking different positions,’ the financial industry lobbyist said. ‘It's a scary thing for lobbyists and for the industry in general.’” Quite a different meaning when read in context, don’t you think?

Lobbying is bribery, it has nothing to do with fair representation in Congress, and it completely undermines American democracy. Tell your Senator and Representative about it, but don’t send them money, they are already paid to listen to you (and they have excellent public health care).


  1. Politicians in Italy have vices too, Massimo.

    In our state the stronghold was (and to a certain extent still is) the Liquor industry. A couple of family members have gone up against the LI and it isn't pretty. It wouldn't even matter how much money your could pour into reversing the trend,(lobbying or whatnot) If you want your rep ruined, just get between people and their vices.

    Up in Farming NM so many city and state officials, fire dept maybe even some law enforcement have been arrested on DUI related stuff, its hard to tell young people "you just can't do such and such" when people in gov leadership positions do it all the time.

    And I could swear, M, that Italy is notoriously pretty much mob controlled as well, isn't it?

    It must be remembered that as unsavory as lobbying may seem from a particular pov, there are good people lobbying for noble causes too.

  2. @caliana

    While there are some "noble" lobbyists, those are not generally the ones that can afford to pour the millions of dollars into buying congressional votes. The point is, no matter what the cause, it is bribery, plain and simple.

  3. The way I see it there are two prerequisites that must be fulfilled before we have any real hope of genuine, progressive government reform (health care included): (a) restricting/doing away with corporate lobbying and (b) de-centralizing the news media. By (a) I mean exactly what you write about. As for (b) one could argue that this already happening to some degree with the rise of internet “citizen journalism” and the imploding traditional model of news distribution; however there will still always be a need for a class of professional journalist—the part best shifted away from corporate centralization. Despite all the talk of Web 2.0, tens of millions of Americans still get their news from the big networks (the proverbial ”MSM”), which is not going away anytime soon. Electoral reform could well be added as a close third requirement.

    I think what your post re-emphasizes is something many “capital L” Libertarians don’t seem to get. A lot of the problems our country is having right now (the economic meltdown comes to mind) is not necessarily the fault of the government per se, but a consequence of the illicit collusion between government and private sector interests. Lobbying is the integral link, closely related is the revolving door between government service and those cushy corporate jobs-—where an cabinet or elected official will craft legislation/(de)regulation knowing that when they leave government they will soon move into a private institution and profit handsomely from the policy they helped implement. The reflexive “smaller government” mantra is not the ideal solution in my opinion (though there is still a lot of room for that as well); rather we should sever this corrupting symbiotic relationship.

    In short, we need a system where the government referees the market to prevent monopolization and to provide essential infrastructure (publicly funded medical insurance included), combined with a truly independent media that watches the government in the public interest. I think we can call that real liberal democracy.

  4. I am generally wary of laws that cannot be enforced, and a few bells went off in my head while reading this.

    1) I don't see how we could enforce the provision (which you admitted won't happen anyway) in which a bill cannot contain unrelated expenditures. Who decides? It will ultimately come down to the same politicians who think it's OK now anyway. So while I agree with the sentiment, I think it's unworkable.

    2) Unless we want to only use public funds for election campaigns (not a crazy idea, but I don't know enough about it to have an opinion), politicians will need to raise money. And they will find ways to get it. What we need is not limitations on lobbying, but better access to this kind of information. I know it's all out there, but for some reason this hasn't filtered down to the rank-and-file voter. I think any candidate who takes no lobbying money would do quite well, if the average voter knew about that distinction, and what the implications were.

    Again, I agree that the moeny influence is significantly problematic, but I think we shouldn't try to legislate it away, because that will never work (see McCain-Feingold).

    Let's work on more government transparency, first. I would support any bill that opened up the federal government to more scrutiny by average citizens.

  5. BJ,

    I'm not ready to give up on either point just yet. Yes, as you say, enforcing a "no irrelevant provisions" law might be tricky, but it could be done by voting at the moment of reconciliation of bills, or by establishing a bipartisan independent commission.

    More importantly, lobbying is most certainly not the only way to raise money for one's campaign, even outside of public financing (which I do favor, btw). What that would do, however, is to drastically reduce the money one can raise and therefore spend for relection. Which is good, it would be yet another way to get away from the model of the best democracy money can buy...

  6. Politicians in Italy have vices too, Massimo.
    Tu quoque logical fallacy, straight out of the starting gate! A new record, even for Cal!

  7. Yeah Massimo,

    You're right, a long time adage in the US has been, "If you want to know what's really going on in politics, follow the money." The problem we encounter is the nation is also hard over on free speech, myself included. It's a tough line to draw. I'm not sure where it should be drawn, I just wish it was SOMEWHERE.

    I also found interesting your comment about governments in Italy falling over bribery. Common wisdom US thinking has changing governments in Italy as sign of instability (but we are an ethnocentric bunch).

    What percentage Italian government changes would you attribute to uncovered financial corruption? If it is a significant fraction it would be good evidence for reform here.

  8. Kimpat

    People often make lobbying possible and permissible by their lifestyles. If that is what you and Massimo are really against I guess I'll go along with it depending on the issue.

    So by one means or another it is the will of the people that tends to drive lobbying. We can't over simplify the argument to say it is just a problem of corrupt, bribery accepting politicians. (and especially in the usa) And yes, liquor people do lobby the legislature here and I am absolutely against it. They have way too much power but the people totally hand it over to them by buying the nasty stuff in mass quantities. I hate the casinos (TO PIECES!!) as well. Friends try to give us free passes for certain things at the casinos, golf and what have you. I WILL NOT step foot in those places for any reason whatsoever or take "free" tickets. Anything proposed to be "FREE" there is not REALLY free. That's either somebody's retirement or their childrens inheritance. And that's a deep pocket (lifestyle) lobbyist in this state too.

    If you're going to pick on lobbying I guess it makes a lot more sense if you pick on specific instances of it. So picking on gambling, booze and lifestyle lobbying is "good", right?

    LOL!!!!! Of course it is!

  9. M. Tully,

    I don't know about percentages, but in the early '90s the Italian political landscape changed literally overnight because of a corruption scandal that saw the collapse of the Christian Democrats, the party that had held the majority in Parliament since immediately after WWII. It was a huge change.

  10. "(but who listens to NPR except for cappuccino-drinking-Chardonnay-sipping-Kindle-reading-iPhone-wielding-MacBook-sporting liberals anyway?)"

    I do. But they make (depending on whose saying it) pretty ideologically motivated claims often.

    Several years ago there was the NPR piece on how Walmart "takes" 30 % of the retail grocery money in NM and so on and so forth. NO. PEOPLE actually willfully GIVE Walmart that money. NM is an expensive place to live in certain respects, so who can blame em?

    The implication then is that people ought to hate less pricy, capitalist corporations, but of course, Trader Joes is OKAY. Tho they basically do the same thing as Wally world, they appear to espouse leftist ideas and have Darwinist "survival of fittest" stuff printed all over their supplements.

    So they're cool...see?

    Yeah, NPR sure is objective all right!....lol!

  11. The point you make about groups and corporations obtaining the status of personhood is so important. This has had a detrimental effect on our democracy. The way freedom of speech has been bastardized to include bribery is also a shame.

    Real campaign reform dies whenever the phrase "limits to free speech" gets uttered by politicians of both political stripe who have their hands out to receive that speech in the form cash, or as we have correctly identified it, bribes.

    The networks are complicit here, too. Why should there need to be one dime spent to advertise prescription drugs? Over-the-counter is one thing, but I've never told my doctor what drug he should prescribe for me. I assume that's what all those years of medical school is for. No, the advertising dollars represent bribery in that it allows PhRMA to control the message on the nation's commercial broadcast networks.

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  13. ..that was Coumadin not Heparin.

  14. Politicians in America are getting worse and worse. So is Science. We need to reform our scientific practices.

  15. "one of the fascinating aspects of my new adventure was to note what was different and what was similar between the US and Europe"

    Massimo, this is hardely relevent to the topic but I think it be kind of cool to hear an elaboration.

  16. I know I'm late to this conversation, but for those who are interested in another insightful examination of this subject matter, I suggest the movie "Bulworth". Massimo, if you haven't seen it already, given all that you've said here I really think you'd enjoy it a lot.


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