Corporate Influence on U.S. Government and Politics

By now if you pay even modest attention to current events in America you've probably heard a lot about lobbyists, “special interests”, and PACs.  These are the levers in which corporations and industry groups influence and often control the US Government, as we will discuss below.

This is part of a series on recognizing and managing misinformation in the media named, “Finding A Bit Of Truth In An Ocean Of Garbage.”

Lobbyists, Special Interests, and PACs

“I hope we shall... crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and to bid defiance to the laws of their country.”
—Thomas Jefferson,
Letter to George Logan. November 12, 1816
How exactly does this all work?  Well, a lobbyist is a person who is hired to influence legislation on behalf of a special interest group.  In 2009, the Senate Office of Public Records estimates there were 13,754 lobbyists, who spent a collective $3.49 Billion in support of their activities.  Lobbyists tend to be former federal employees, as their government contacts give them an advantage. This practice is sometimes called the “revolving door.”
“Whether lobbyists work for a large organization, a private individual, or the general public, their goals and strategies are the same. First and foremost, lobbyists must be adept at the art of persuasion, which is the mainstay of their job. They must figure out how to sway politicians to vote on legislation in a way that favors the interest they represent. This means tailoring appeals to specific individuals as well as to group voting blocs, such as Southerners or pro-choicers. .... Sometimes, lobbyists will even sit down and help a politician draft legislation that is advantageous for their interest.”
—Excerpted from “A Day in the life of a Lobbyist”,
The Princeton Review
Special Interests are the advocacy groups that lobbyists organize themselves under to influence public opinion and legislation, while Political Action Commitees (PACs) focus on electing the candidates they support.  Both are largely sponsored by corporations and industry groups.  The reason these third party groups exist is that regulations have historically barred corporations from direct lobbying and/or campaigning for candidates.

The film, Thank You For Smoking, is a satirical dramatization of the modus operandi of lobbyists from unsavory industries.  Although fictional, it helps one to appreciate their goals and motivations.  I had to be be encouraged to watch it, as I don't care for smoking ... but the film has little to do with it and is quite funny.  Recommended as it will help this dry subject come alive.

Benefits of Lobbyists

Despite what you may have heard, there are a few benefits to lobbyists.  In economist Thomas Sowell's book, “Knowledge and Decisions,” he defends corporate lobbying as simply an example of a group having better knowledge of its interests than the public at large.  Additonally, industries are able to share their expertise and are given a voice into issues that affect them, which is fair.  The relevant commitee of the UK House of Commons has argued the same points.
“The practice of lobbying in order to influence political decisions is a legitimate and necessary part of the democratic process. Individuals and organisations reasonably want to influence decisions that may affect them, those around them, and their environment. Government in turn needs access to the knowledge and views that lobbying can bring.”
—UK House of Commons PASC,
Lobbying: Access and influence in Whitehall
Therefore, lobbyists don't completely deserve the negative image the term has come to represent.  The problem however, is that much of the time lobbyists and their employers make the final decisions on legislation rather than voters. 

Understandably, industry profits aren't nearly as high a priority to the general public than they are to industry.  Nor should they be.

Further reading:

    Management of Political Opinion

    In order for an industry to lobby effectively, that is to introduce favorable bills and defeat unfavorable ones, they must manage public opinion as well.  We've seen how that is accomplished in the previous post on Media Campaigns.  This section will now examine the process from a political perspective.  Let's look a few examples.

    Net Neutrality

    The topic of net neutrality is a good place to start as it is a current issue, simple to understand, and therefore theoretically shouldn't get bogged down in a lot of politics.  Unfortunately, since the basic concepts are not widely familiar to non-techies, groups are working to exploit that lack of knowledge.

    If you are not familiar with the subject, it simply prohibits discrimination of traffic by internet providers, which is how the internet has functioned historically.
    Network neutrality is a principle proposed for ... the Internet that advocates no restrictions by Internet Service Providers or governments on content, sites, or platforms, on the kinds of equipment that may be attached, and on the modes of communication allowed.
    —Wikipedia, “Network Neutrality
    Doesn't sound very controversial, does it?  After all if you had internet from Time Warner, you wouldn't want them to be able to slow down Youtube, would you?  Or if you had AT&T Internet, you wouldn't want them to be able to ban Skype, right?  Hulu crippled on or by Comcast ?  According to their actions so far, that's just what they'd like to do.  Thanks to media consolidation, this idea has become feasible and/or desirable.

    While there are some decent nuanced arguments against net neutrality, you won't find these in the popular media.  Instead a group named Americans for Prosperity have embarked on a campaign to characterize the FCC anti-discrimination rule as a “big government take-over of the internet.”  Seemingly in oposition to the spirit of the law.  How effective it will be remains to be seen.

    We'll revisit this topic in a future post to note to see how it is covered by large news organizations.

    Biased sources:
    Further Reading:

    Healthcare Reform

    I'd have preferred not to touch the healthcare debate with a ten-foot poll but this show on the topic cut through the bullshit like nothing I've seen in a long time.  I'll ask that you suspend any opinions on the subject for a moment and watch this former insurance executive describes how the industry framed the political debate for so many.  Whether for or against the legislation, you'll find it interesting.
    “It does offend me that the vested special interests, that are so profitable and so powerful, are able to influence public policy in the way that they have, and the way they've done over the years.  And the insurance industry has been one of the most successful in beating back any kinds of legislation that would hinder or affect the profitability of the companies.”
    —Wendell Potter on Bill Moyers Journal  (@ 20:17)

    Another quote in reference to the “revolving door.”
    BILL MOYERS: Why is the industry so powerful on both sides of the aisle?
    WENDELL POTTER: Well, money and relationships, ideology. The relationships— an insurance company can hire and does hire many different lobbying firms. And they hire firms that are predominantly Republican and predominantly Democrat. And they do this because they know they need to reach influential members of Congress like Max Baucus. So there are people who used to work for Max Baucus who are in lobbying firms or on the staff of companies like CIGNA or the association itself.
    BILL MOYERS: Yeah, I just read the other day in “The Washington Post,” that Max Baucus's staff met with a group of lobbyists. Two of them had been Baucus's former chiefs of staff.
    —Wendell Potter on Bill Moyers Journal  (@ 16:27)
    I highly recommend watching the full program from the beginning.  In it you'll learn what the public needs to know about how the industry managed the debate and was able to get the legislation that it wanted. 
    The result:  No public option, and rules to require everyone to acquire insurance.  Incredibly effective.

    Further resources at the Journal site:

    Campaign Finance Reform

    You might also be aware of the attempts to reform the process of campaign finance, or rather their failures.  The financing of election campaigns is a large burden to politicians and therefore very important to them.  If they do not raise the large amounts of money necessary for advertising they are likely not able to get elected.  This is where PACs and their benefactors, corporations and industry groups come in.  They provide the massive amounts of cash necessary for successful campaigns, ensuring politicians are dependent on them.

    The reform movement was and is an attempt to reduce this powerful influence on the government.  There have been several bills over the years and a few have been made into law.  The most famous of which, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2001 sponsored by Senator(s) McCain/Feingold was passed after many years of struggle although in watered-down form.  Important provisions of it were recently struck down by the Supreme Court in 2010.  Senator McCain later remarked that “Campaign Finance Reform is dead.”

    I leave it to the reader to decide why effective campaign finance reform never seems to happen.


    I like money.”
    —Frito Pendejo, Idiocracy (2005)
    While it costs many millions of dollars to herd the public and government in various directions the outcomes may be worth billions and sometimes trillions.  See unending wars, bank bailouts, healthcare & bankruptcy legislation, etc, etc, for examples.  Motive established.

    In the next post we'll draw some conclusions and look at the consequences of this unfortunate situation.

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