OCALA, Fla., May 20, 2014 — The power of special interest groups on politics cannot be understated.
Lobbying is such a lucrative profession that federal legislators have abdicated their offices for it. While lobbyists supposedly exist for the purpose of presenting arguments to lawmakers and nothing more, reality indicates something altogether different.
Roughly eight years ago, the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal caused such a stir on Capitol Hill that many believe it threw the Republican majority out of power. The GOP has not dominated both houses of Congress since.
Despite the immense scope of the scandal, only one elected public officeholder was charged with any wrongdoing. That was former U.S. Representative Bob Ney. Since being released from federal prison, he has devoted his career to raising awareness about government malfeasance.
“I knew years ago that the McCain finance reform would do nothing,” Rep. Ney told me last year. “Combined with Citizens United, money flows now more than ever. The super pacs also have zero transparency, no one is sure whether the PAC is to the left or right (Soros or Rove) [or] who is playing the political money game. The system is broken and needs [to be] fixed. The money race is on more than ever. Members [of Congress], and there are plenty of good ones [on] both sides, are forced into a campaign arms race.
“I had a substance addiction, today the Congress has an addiction, campaign contributions and it is going to take an intervention by the public to correct it. They should be alarmed.”
Rep. Ney went on to mention his belief that “one day, through examples and stories of people gone afoul of the law, like myself, enough information on the situation will lead to more disgust by the public and a demand to change it. It could be done in days if the leaders of both parties simply announce they are going to make changes. I believe one day the true ability to lobby, which is good, shall be done without the follow up campaign dollars.”
In 2012, Abramoff, who faced incarceration as well, told me that “(t)he elephant in the room is the unconstitutional massive growth of the federal government. The power of the special interests grows as the federal government expands. The only way to eliminate their power is to drastically reduce the size of the federal state. Lobbyists never have a bad year. Three of the five richest counties in America border Washington, DC. There is a reason for this: It’s because our political classes have systematically arrogated themselves power and control beyond the worst nightmares of our founders.”
Much like Rep. Ney, Abramoff became a voice for lobbying reform after being released from federal prison.
“I wish I could say I came to my new approach while I was in the midst of successful years lobbying, but it took the end of my career and for me not to have a financial interest in these matters to see things clearly,” he admitted. “Unfortunately, that inability to see the damage this system does to our nation plagues many of the very fine people who still engage in that business.”
Josh Silver is the director of Represent.Us, an advocacy group with an ambitious mission: to curtail the power of special interest groups as well as the corrupting influence of lobbyists. In order to accomplish this, the group proposes grand-scale reforms of America’s political scene.
“It isn’t just corrupt transactions that wreck the legislative process,” he mentioned to me during 2013. “It is the culture of common understanding by both major parties that identifies organized money as the most important form of power. At the beginning of every significant policy debate in Congress, the first set of questions is not about the right answer; it is about which moneyed forces will take what positions and how that will impact the effort.
“This is where the parameters of ‘what is possible’ are set. This set of assumptions are powerfully reinforced by the mainstream political media because they simply repeat what Washington says and fill their news-holes with interviews with Washington influentials. Though there are 535 members of Congress and thousands of ‘senior officials’ across the executive branch – the truth is that a much smaller number of people control the real levers of power in Washington.
“They set the agenda. They determine the realm of the possible for everyone else to work within. They rotate out of elected office into lobby shops and law firms. They move in and out of political campaigns. They rotate through corporate C suites to the White House and offices of Cabinet secretaries. They live in the same neighborhoods. They hang out at the same restaurants. And their shared assumptions accepts that moneyed political power is the most important form of political power.
“Once you have been in this culture for a while, you become desensitized to things that neutral observers might call corruption ― campaign contribution breakfasts hosted by rings of lobbyists; special favors for your old friends who happen to be lobbyists; and accepting and repeating the arguments you hear regularly in your social circles ― even though they are filled with lobbyists and carry the water for special interests. Over time, you become distanced from what you thought before, the ideals that brought you to Washington in the first place.”