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American Politics, Lobbyism and Corruption: A Huge Challenge for the System of “Checks and Balances”
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American Politics, Lobbyism and Corruption: A Huge Challenge for the System of “Checks and Balances”

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USA – March 22, 2019

The recent scandal with the corruption in higher education in America shattered both Republicans and Democrats, people who live in big cities and rural inhabitants, the rich and the poor. However, such corrupt schemes can be found in various spheres of life within American society, and this poses a real threat to American democracy.

Many experts (mainly from the liberal camp) tend to blame Trump for the creation of numerous corruption schemes and bringing his offspring to the White House, and this certainly is true to some extent, however the problem goes much deeper. It wasn’t Trump who invented the system of lobbyism and made it legal within the American political system, and this is exactly where the majority of modern-day problems with corruption come from in the U.S.

It’s well known that it started nearly 50 years ago, and that since the 1970s, lobbying has grown dramatically in terms of the numbers of specialists engaged in it and the size of their budgets. The lobby system is the focus of much of the criticism of American governance, but no matter how loudly it’s criticized, nobody can beat it. It was very well shown that lobbyism is the key issue in American corruption by Jeffrey Sachs in his 2011 book The Price of Civilization, and we strongly recommend you to read it.

How many lobbyists are there in Washington D.C.?

There are various estimates, but the most moderate of them state that the approximate number of lobbyists acting in the American capital only (without local lobbyists in other major cities) is about 12,000. However, this is more like a technical number, since most of the lobbying (if we consider the lobbying budgets), is done by just about 300 rather “small” firms. There are other estimates too, though. For instance, analyst James A. Thurber states that the actual number of active lobbyists in D.C. is close to 100,000. According to him, the industry brings in about $9 billion annually, which proves that the American political system can be described as “highly-lobbied” and thus – “highly-corrupt.”

What does political theory say about the nature of lobbyism?

Why is it fair to call a “highly-lobbied” system a “highly-corrupt” one at the same time? Here is the theoretical proof of it. Yes, indeed: lobbying is a legitimate process for passing information between constituents and those who make decisions in the government, and something “legitimate” can’t be called “illegitimate” due to traditional political practices. However, this is just a bird’s-eye view of the issue, as the system of lobbyism also produces some self-evident disparities. The thing is, whenever policy actions generate concentrated benefits and dispersed costs, the incentives and abilities to lobby are significantly different across groups.

What happens next is that potential beneficiaries can often use the advantage of small group sizes and large potential windfalls to wield disproportionate influence on decision makers, while potential losers, whose numbers are large and expected costs per person are quite small, have almost no ability to lobby the government effectively. Thus, no matter how “legitimate” and democratic the system of lobbyism might appear in theory, in practice it turns out to be a highly-corrupt game with the rich beating the poor. It definitely wasn’t meant to be so, but it happened, becoming a serious issue for democracy in general.

What do political experts say about the nature of lobbyism, and why do they think it is the main source of corruption in modern-day America?

Such views on lobbyism didn’t appear yesterday. Some experts, like former United States Secretary of Labor (1993-1997, during Clinton’s administration), Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies, Robert Reich, tend to call it a “legal form of bribery.” In his article written back in 2015 he stated:

Washington has been rocked by the scandal of J. Dennis Hastert, the longest-serving Republican speaker in the history of the U.S. House, indicted on charges of violating banking laws by paying $1.7 million (as part of a $3.5 million agreement) to conceal prior misconduct, allegedly child molestation. That scandal contains another one that’s received less attention: the fact that Hastert, who never made much money as a teacher or a congressman, could manage such payments because after retiring from Congress he became a high-paid lobbyist…

In every election cycle since 2008, more money has gone into lobbying at the federal level than into political campaigns. And an increasing portion of that lobbying money has gone into the pockets of former members of Congress. In viewing campaign contributions as the major source of corruption we overlook the more insidious flow of direct, personal payments – much of which might be called “anticipatory bribery” because they enable office holders to cash in big after they’ve left office.

What Reich basically meant years ago, and what is still visible within the American political system, as the rules of the games haven’t changed dramatically, is that politicians in Washington D.C. like the lobbyists for a very simple reason – they bring them money. And what is labeled “corruption” in other countries is labeled “legal” in the U.S.

How do companies use lobbying techniques and what does it lead to?

Many companies play the lobbying game -- it’s much easier to say who doesn’t. And one of the most influential, and notorious, such companies is Boeing. It has been known for lobbying for years. Here is the proof from 2011 published in the pages of  the Chicago Sun-Times:

Boeing Co. is one of the most influential companies in airline manufacturing and has continually shown its influence in lobbying Congress.

“Between January and September, Boeing spent a total of $12 million lobbying according to research by the Center for Responsive Politics. Additionally, Boeing has its own political action committee, which donated more than $2.2 million to federal candidates during the 2010 election cycle. Of that sum, 53 percent went to Democrats. ...Through September, Boeing's PAC has donated $748,000 to federal politicians.

Compare it to what we already know about the recent tragedies that occurred with brand-new Boeing 737 MAX 8 airplanes and you will understand that it wasn’t a simple coincidence. Boeing representatives simply thought they were invulnerable and felt like their positions as the monopolists were stable enough, so they could allow some mistakes. The situation only started changing after two resonant catastrophes resulted in the deaths of several hundreds, and now Boeing is experiencing huge problems, including deep drops in their shares.

The lives of 346 people could have been saved if the American government didn’t close its eyes to the huge amount of money Boeing “donates” to lobbyists who support their interests with highly-corrupt schemes.

Is lobbyism the only mechanism contributing to the corruption in the U.S.?

It would be pretty simple to blame lobbyism for all the corruption, but that wouldn’t be true--the problem is far deeper. The political corruption in the U.S. existed long before the lobbyists “came to power,” and we should remember how gerrymandering was invented and what it actually meant.

Partisan gerrymandering (an obvious means of corruption that refers to redistricting that favors one political party, making it superior over another, since the districts are cut on the basis of the electoral preferences), has a long tradition in the United States. It even precedes the 1789 election of the First U.S. Congress, starting a year before, in 1788, when Patrick Henry and his Anti-Federalist allies were in control of the Virginia House of Delegates. The Anti-Federalists drew the boundaries of Virginia's 5th congressional district in an unsuccessful attempt to keep James Madison out of the U.S. House of Representatives. And although this experiment failed in the short-run, it became an important weapon of political corruption in the future.

The word “gerrymander” itself was used for the first time in the Boston Gazette almost two decades later, on March 26, 1812, as a reaction to a redrawing of Massachusetts state senate election districts under the then-governor Elbridge Gerry (1744–1814). Gerry, in his turn, signed a bill that redistricted Massachusetts to benefit his Democratic-Republican Party, and when mapped, one of the contorted districts to the north of Boston was said to resemble a salamander.

In modern-day America, gerrymandering is used mostly by the Democrats, as they feel like they are “underrepresented.” The shapes of the districts don’t follow any logic at times, and state of Maryland has taken gerrymandering to a whole new level with its 3rd district, which threw all logic aside with its bizarre shape. This seat in congress has been held by (what a surprise!) the Democrats since the district was redrawn in 2000 and it isn't likely to change hands in the near future. There are many more examples of gerrymandering that favor Democrats all over the U.S.

To sum up

What America is facing today is a huge problem with lobbyism being the key means of economic corruption and gerrymandering being the key means of political corruption.

It could be too easy to blame Trump for both, but what seems to be pretty self-evident is that it is the Democrats, liberals, and minorities groups who should be held responsible. Unfortunately, the present-day American mainstream is too left-wing to realize it.  

Author: USA Really