This 113th Congress has been deemed the least productive Congress in history, and frustration is rampant. In recent years, the rhetoric around legislative dysfunction has centered upon the excess of money in politics, where big business and interest groups have disproportionate voices relative to American citizens. The impression is that corporations hire powerful lobbyists to attain political favors from Senators and Congressmen in exchange for campaign contributions, and that politicians have become too entrenched in the finances of the endless campaign to achieve any real progress for the American people.
With the recent decisions in Citizens United v. FEC and McCutcheon v. FEC, this impression has become further embedded. Since the Citizens United ruling in 2010, outside spending by political action committees (PACs), public advocacy groups, and other entities has skyrocketed. This year alone, outside spending in the 2014 midterm elections is projected to match spending levels of the 2012 presidential election. And while the McCutcheon ruling does not dramatically change the campaign finance landscape, it may encourage additional lawsuits that test campaign finance regulations.
Whether true or not, the impressions of corrupt lobbyists and lawmakers raise two separate but interconnected issues in the policymaking process: lobbying and campaign finance. While both are certainly important aspects of the policymaking process, future reforms should focus on preventing the practices from potentially affecting each other.
Lobbying has received a particularly bad rap in recent years, but at the very base, lobbying is an essential component of the policymaking process. Given that each Congressional office has only so many staff members, each staff member must tackle a slew of issues on a daily basis and must ration time and resources among those issues. Lobbyists are useful because they can utilize additional time and resources that a corporation or organization has in order to help inform a staff member on the often arcane details of an issue. Without lobbyists to provide a channel of communication with companies and organizations, Congress would likely be out of touch and unable to design legislation best tailored to facilitating growth and progress.
In itself, campaign finance is another vital part of the policymaking process. Candidates require money to hire campaign staff members, host campaign events, and publicize their positions through media, among other expenses. Without campaign contributions, candidates would be unable to effectively convey their positions to constituents, and consequently constituents would be unable to make informed decisions at the polls.
However, in recent years, the proliferation of efforts to loosen campaign finance laws has raised concerns of how much influence corporations and their lobbyists can buy through campaign contributions.
In some ways, it can be argued that there is no or little relationship between lobbying and contributions. Legally, it is a federal crime for a lobbyist to explicitly offer monetary contributions in exchange for political favors. Statistically, some research claims that there is no relationship between the influence of lobbyists and the level of campaign contributions the corporation being represented donates to the relevant candidate. Logically, the argument is that campaign contributions simply allow for access to a politician rather than direct influence, since politicians would be more willing to take meetings with those who are contributing to their campaigns.
Yet, regardless of whether a hard link can be found between political influence and contribution levels, it is hard to imagine that when high level company employees, lobbying firms, PACs, and other entities raise and spend hundreds of millions of dollars on campaigns and independent election cycle activities, that these donors expect no sort of benefit down the road when they send their lobbyists to the Hill to advocate on a particular issue. Additionally, it is hard to imagine that companies and organizations have lost any faith in the influence of money in politics, as both lobbying and PAC expenditures have nearly doubled in the last 15 years.
Going forward, it would be ideal to remove all potential impacts that disproportionate campaign contributions and election spending may have on lobbying and political influence. It would be ideal to abolish PACs and other forms of unlimited election cycle spending. But, at the same time, such efforts would be politically difficult (impossible). Therefore, the solutions need to be multi-faceted and gradual, both attempting to tamp down the potential influence of contributions in lobbying and strengthening the voice of American citizens.
First, while hard limits on campaign and outside spending would be difficult, it would be extremely helpful to boost transparency by better publicizing the current wealth of data on contribution disclosures. While campaign committees, PACs, and 527s are legally required to disclose their own donors and who they donate to, and such information is readily available on sites such as OpenSecrets, many Americans do not visit these sites on a regular basis, or at all. In an effort to help American voters become more informed about their candidates, it will be useful to develop ways to motivate voters to seek more information about their candidates. For example, a recent smartphone application called BuyPartisan allows users to scan the barcode of a product, and immediately identify to whom, and in what amounts, the related company contributes.
At the same time, the very tool that has been the bane of campaign finance can also be used to overcome it. Professor Lawrence Lessig of Harvard University and Republican consultant Mark McKinnon formed the Mayday PAC in order to fund the campaigns of candidates who are set on pushing campaign finance. Recently, the Mayday PAC contributed $2 million to former state Senator Jim Ruben’s race in New Hampshire. While the PAC’s resources are incomparable to the much more vast resources of other PACs, the Mayday PAC’s approach could be an effective initial spark in combatting reckless spending during election cycles.
But at the end of the day, these solutions of increasing information for voters and battling disproportionate spending will be ineffective if the issue of voter apathy is not resolved. The voter turnout rate out of all eligible voters in the 2012 election was 59%, and 41% for the 2010 midterm election. Such figures are disconcerting in themselves, and are exacerbated by the fact that not many Americans are well-informed on political issues. In a 2012 Pew Research study , only 43% of Americans ages 18 through 29 were able to correctly identify Speaker John Boehner as a member of the Republican Party. Only 68% percent of the individuals surveyed in the age group could correctly identify Republicans as the conservative party. Given these statistics, it is absolutely vital that Americans become better informed, if Americans want to take back their share of the political process.
Ultimately, lawmakers must face their constituents at the polls, and therefore Americans can leverage their vote by becoming more informed and participating more in voting and other political events. While it is not an easy task due to voter apathy, it is an important one for the future of America. The best solutions would be those that provide individuals with a reason or incentive to vote, such as making Election Day a federal holiday, as well as making Americans more aware of the implications of politics in their daily lives. At the end of the day, while Americans presently complain of the inactivity in Washington, it must ultimately be their own initiative to jumpstart their democratic institution.
Frank Yan is a third-year in the College, majoring in Political Science and Economics.