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
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).