Corporations now spend about $2.6 billion a year on reported lobbying expenditures – more than the $2 billion we spend to fund the House ($1.16 billion) and Senate ($820 million).
Why is that bad? Klein discusses two reasons.
1. Congress outsources its thinking to lobbyists. No member of congress can be expert on all the issues that cross their desk. ...
[Lobbyist's] spells are powerful when cast upon obscure subparagraphs, technical amendments, and legislation that will never make headlines. It's in that vast gap between how many issues members of Congress — and their staffs — can know and care about, and how many issues they're being asked to vote on, where lobbying is most powerful. And there is so, so much money in that gap.
The way it will work is that an obscure tax break that neither the congressman nor his staff has ever heard of will be set to expire. Neither the congressman nor his staff will have any particular opinion as to whether the tax break should be renewed. But the congressman will get a request for a meeting from a lobbyist who has been a big supporter of his campaigns. It'll only take 20 minutes, the lobbyist promises, no big deal.
And you know what? The lobbyist will make a good case for keeping that tax break. The lobbyist, after all, was hired because she is good at making cases. She will walk in prepared, knowledgeable, charismatic. She'll know how the tax provision will affect businesses in that member's district — maybe she'll even have brought some business owners from the congressman's district along. Hell, she might even know the congressman already, or have worked for him in the past (more on that in a minute). Corporate America is buying a lot of talent with that $2.4 billion.
But even if the lobbyist makes a bad case, the congressman may never realize it. Congress has a very limited amount of money with which to inform itself. Corporate America has vastly more money with which to inform congress. It's easy to make an argument sound good when no is arguing the other side.
That's what those numbers show: the forces of corporate lobbying have much more money to "inform" Congress than Congress has money to inform itself.
2. Money makes the door revolve.
Congress is no longer a destination but a journey. Committee assignments are mainly valuable as part of the interview process for a far more lucrative job as a K Street lobbyist. You are considered naïve if you are not currying favor with wealthy corporations under your jurisdiction. It's become routine to see members of Congress drop their seat in Congress like a hot rock when a particularly lush vacancy opens up.
As disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff wrote in his memoir:
I would say a few magic words [to a staffer]: "When you are done working for the Congressman, you should come work for me at my firm."
With that, assuming the staffer had any interest in leaving Capitol Hill for K Street—and almost 90 percent of them do, I would own him and, consequently, that entire office. No rules had been broken, at least not yet. No one even knew what was happening, but suddenly, every move that staffer made, he made with his future at my firm in mind. His paycheck may have been signed by the Congress, but he was already working for me, influencing his office for my clients’ best interests. It was a perfect—and perfectly corrupt—arrangement.
Ezra Klein's solution
We need to pay members of Congress and their staff more, and give Congress more money to build up its own informational resources. [We] need to "invest more in government by giving government, especially Congress, the resources to hire and retain the most experienced and expert staff."
Since no one likes Congress, no one likes the idea of giving Congress more money. But spending about $2 billion annually on an organization that collectively controls around $4 trillion in annual spending is a recipe for disaster. The less of our money we spend on Congress, the more of our money lobbyists are going to convince Congress to spend on their clients.
*Similar points apply to lobbying by unions and advocacy organizations. But the magnitude of their spending is simply much lower. "For every dollar spent on lobbying by labor unions and public interest groups, large corporations and their associations now spend $34," writes Drutman. "Of the 100 organizations that spend the most on lobbying, 95 consistently represent business."
Yes, but ... . The preceding is the best argument I know for smaller government. Where by smaller government one means a government that has less control over how money is spent and how the economy is run. The less money there is for lobbyist to get for their clients, the less it will be worthwhile to fight for it.
But is that possible? I don't see how. Our economic and governmental system requires certain activities to be centralized. And that means there is a limit on the minimal size of government. Unfortunately, that limit is very large, which means that we can't shrink government to the point where it is not worth the lobbyist's money.
The other solution. A culture of incorruptibility. But even if we have that, those in charge need information to make honest decisions. If we don't give them the resources needed to get that information, it will be provided by those who have a vested interest in where the information points.
So I think is correct. We need a much stronger civil knowledge service. One that is competent to provide the needed information and one populated by people of incorruptible character. That's not impossible, but it takes a lot of work to get there.
Update: prompted me to look up this study. Economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. (See http://goo.gl/J2eRwX and http://goo.gl/z8Ku6c)