Lobbying System Advancements
Table of Contents
Excerpt from The New Enlightenment, pages 371-383, 4,761 words
Our Lobbying System: Another Unlevel Playing Field Designed to Serve an Elite at the Expense of Everyone Else
Corporations spent $3.31 billion on over 12,000 lobbyists in Washington in 2012. This is $119,000 per congressperson per week. They made these massive expenditures because in prior years they received far more value in tax savings and rebates, regulatory advantages, and favoritism in government contracts.
As I noted in Part 1, between 2008 and 2010, thirty large corporations spent more money lobbying Washington than they paid in taxes. Twenty-nine paid zero in taxes and instead received tax rebates over those three years. General Electric received $5 billion, while it had profits of $10.5 billion. The total value of the rebates received by the thirty corporations was near $11 billion. Combined lobbying expenses during the period were $475 million, so they received a 2,216% rate of return on their investment. Combined profits during the same period were $164 billion.
The Sunlight Foundation determined the 200 corporations most active in Washington and analyzed for the years 2007-2012 what these companies received in federal contracts and other federal support, what they spent on lobbying, and how much their executives and political action committees gave in campaign contributions. They found that the top 200 corporations spent nearly $5.8 billion on lobbying and campaign contributions—an insignificant amount compared to what they received: $4.4 trillion in federal contracts and assistance. Federal business contracts totaled $1.28 trillion and federal assistance $3.17 trillion. The federal assistance included loans, loan guarantees, and grants. The $4.4 trillion may not have all resulted from their lobbying, but likely a substantial fraction did. If it all did, and they profited by just 10% of the $4.4 trillion, their lobbying resulted in a 7,500% return on investment.
Lockheed Martin, the nation’s largest contractor and world’s largest military equipment company, received over $19 billion in federal contracts in 2011 and spent millions in lobbying for these and future contracts. The ten biggest government contractors are defense contractors, and they are also big suppliers of lobbyists. The defense industry lobbied our government using 384 lobbyists and $43 million from January through November 2013 and $59 million in 2012. This is one reason our defense budget is as large as it is and goes up despite having no military rival remotely close to our level of military power.
Allowing corporate managers to use the enormous financial resources of corporations to influence our political and policymaking systems disadvantages members of the general public. It commonly results in unnecessary governmental or consumer costs to serve corporate managers’ exclusive goal of maximizing corporate profits.
Our current lobbying system facilitates what could be considered to be veiled bribes, but sometimes it’s veiled extortion. Members of Congress may implicitly threaten businesses with not renewing a federal contract or not approving a new one, or with removing regulatory or tax advantages they have, if they’re not spending money to support them. A far more transparent policymaking process is needed to minimize corruption or undue influence originating from either side.
Lobbyist influence derives from two sources: money for lawmakers’ campaigns and access to provide information to lawmakers. Under our current election system, lawmakers are desperate for campaign cash because of the enormous advantages large amounts of money provide in campaigns. Direct campaign cash promises and indirect ones through outside groups, such as super-PACs, and fundraising assistance promises from lobbyists, are used to influence policy to serve the narrow interests of wealthy corporations and individuals. New Enlightenment’s election system reforms will eliminate the need for large amounts of campaign cash, so after we institute the reforms, this source of influence will no longer be important.
However, the other source of influence, access to provide information, may be even more commonly decisive. Influence comes from an ability to become an essential part of the policymaking process by flooding understaffed, under-experienced, and overworked congressional offices with enough information and expertise to shape their thinking. A recent Policy Council survey found that two-thirds of staffers say that lobbyists are “necessary to the process” as either “collaborators” or “educators.” House staffers keep track of hundreds of issues, and they are ill-equipped to do so for several reasons.
Since a 1974 law, all House offices are limited to 18 staff members, split between the home district and Washington, DC. This has stayed the same even though a substantially higher degree of legislative complexity commonly exists now compared to 1974 and the population of most districts is larger, resulting in more constituent correspondence and services. In 1974, the population of the U.S. was 214 million; now, it is 317 million. Also, an important support institution, the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, has been eliminated.
Most House and Senate staff persons are inexperienced, and their relatively poor pay results in high turnover rates. Most Senate staffers have worked in their job for less than three years. For most, it is their first job. In House offices, one-third of staffers are in their first year, while only one in three has worked there for five years or more. Due to high turnover, congressional offices are handicapped with little policy knowledge, making them extraordinarily vulnerable to lobbyists’ influence.
Sixteen lobbyists representing businesses overrun policymakers’ offices for every one representing unions or public interest groups. From 1998 through 2010, business interests and trade groups spent $28.6 billion on lobbying, compared with $492 million for labor, nearly a 60 to 1 business advantage. Business lobbyists flood Congress with the most people and the most reports, and pay attention to the most details. What they provide serves their corporate clients’ interests, generally in disregard of the public interest. No requirement exists for lobbyists to disclose which lawmakers they are meeting with and what information they provide in their materials or personal contacts, so important sources of influence are hidden from view.
In his famous essay, On Liberty, John Stuart Mill (1859) expressed these important facts: subjecting arguments to public scrutiny is unconditionally beneficial and provides the best way of sorting out good arguments from bad ones. Secrecy provides fertile ground for policy harmful to the public interest to serve special interests and undermines the ability of the press to provide an effective check against the abuses of government. As the proverb goes, Sunshine is the strongest antiseptic.
Corporations and the wealthy exerting influence in secret dominate our policymaking system. The public, the media, and competing advocates often cannot discover which lobbyists are meeting with whom, what they are advocating for, and how they advocate for it.
When constituents wish to express their opinion to their senator or congressperson, they write a letter or email, or call the office. Congress receives over 200 million messages a year from constituents. Most offices have a list of generic responses, and responding using the current system uses large amounts of staff time and results in little influence or, most commonly, no influence by average citizens.
New Enlightenment policy uses modern technology to solve the problem of lack of transparency while also serving the important purpose of leveling the playing field between wealthy interests and the general public in the ability to access lawmakers with information and advocacy on policy issues. The following solution will also reduce burdens on congressional staff.
The Library of Congress will create a website that will be the online forum for all public policy advocacies. Currently, every time a piece of legislation is introduced, the Library of Congress makes that legislation available online through the “THOMAS” System (named after Thomas Jefferson). The new web-based system, “JAMES” (named after James Madison), will be the forum for lobbyists, constituents, and other interested parties to publicly and transparently debate legislation. The JAMES system is a modified version of a Brookings Institution proposal. It is modified to further level the playing field between corporate lobbyists and the general public or public interest groups, and expand its functions.[i]
JAMES will provide congressional staff, journalists, and the public, with access to arguments, information, and ideas about public policy, which will be searchable and sortable.
We will require registered lobbyists to state the organization they represent and briefly state their client’s position on a bill (or amendment or section of the bill). Also, they can provide a simple up or down vote that will make it easy for anybody, including congressional staff, to see who is for and who is opposed to particular policies. Every U.S. taxpayer would also get an account based on his or her Social Security number. Account holders could also state their position and provide one up or down vote on a bill or section of the bill or amendment. Comments will require citizens to use their real names, which can also be determined by the Social Security number, but name and Social Security number would not be publicly disclosed (unless a citizen chooses to reveal name). Identification encourages a high-level civic debate, which often does not occur in anonymous forums.
Both the Executive Office of the President and the administrative agencies responsible for implementing and enforcing the laws have valuable expertise relevant to policy proposals, including insights into costs and feasibility. So the Executive Office and administrative agencies also may post pages for comments on a particular bill, section, or amendment and provide useful information, including any foreseeable problems with implementation or enforcement.
JAMES would have a hub page for each bill proposed by Representatives. You could easily see which organizations oppose and which are in favor. Each organization could detail and respond to one another’s arguments for and against bills. Contact information will be included for anyone wanting to learn more. All positions and arguments being made public will result in more democratic and more thoroughly vetted public policy. Everybody—members of Congress and their staffs, journalists, and the public—will be better informed and empowered.
Corporate lobbyists and lobbyists for public interest groups receiving a yet to be determined maximum amount or percentage of funding from corporations will be required to use the JAMES system as their sole contact route to lawmakers’ offices. We include a restriction on some public interest groups because corporations often use them to advance their interests.
The restriction on corporate lobbyists’ personal meetings with lawmakers should not be seen as a First Amendment violation. The JAMES system allows full expression by all; just the form is restricted for efficiency, transparency, and equal access. The restriction is important in the service of the public good, and it is not for persons representing themselves.
We accept a more restrictive requirement that churches do not lobby the state on their behalf. My proposed lobbying system reform’s relatively minor separation of corporation and state does not bar corporations from lobbying on their behalf. It just limits their lobbying to public view.
Lobbyists could update their pages as much as they like as new information becomes available, including in response to ongoing information input by other participants. They can also post separate pages for each state and congressional district to provide more targeted information to help individual offices better understand how their constituencies might be affected.
Personal meetings access on public policy issues would remain available for individual citizens and representatives of public interest groups below the maximum threshold in corporate funding. Congressional staff will be required to publicly disclose the gist of any public policy-related in-person conversation between their office and citizens or public interest group representatives on JAMES (citizens can require that the disclosure be anonymous). In cases where citizens have personal issues, such as being mistreated by a government agency where they seek the assistance of their representative in resolving the problem, these discussions not directly related to public policy development would not require public disclosure.
Before the Internet, the ideal of having all citizen or organizational communications with policymakers occur in public that is intended to influence public policy was not practical in our large society. The JAMES system will make best use of the opportunity provided by this powerful technology to meet this ideal. It allows for transparency in all public policy communications with policymakers. Also, individual citizen’s potential for influence would likely be greater in this forum than through any other communication route, and lawmakers’ offices would prefer it for the efficiency advantages.
My proposed system will eliminate the unjust and often socially destructive policy influence advantages resulting from the wealth of corporations. The average citizen and actual grassroots-funded interest groups cannot hire armies of lobbyists to develop relationships with many lawmakers and their staffs to provide information and advocacy within a non-transparent system, as corporations now can.
In addition to legislation introduced by their representatives, members of the public would also be given the opportunity to include their own policy proposals in a separate section of the website. Unorganized, unrestricted suggestions, comments, and data would not likely be productive, though. So the system requires structured policy proposal input to facilitate the evaluation of the likely large number of entries.
Five sections per policy proposal submission will be created where these maximums could be entered as needed: A 50-word summary, a 500-word summary, and up to a 2,000-word description, then up to a 20,000-word description; then, if necessary, content up to 100,000 words could be included in the fifth section. Participants would have to input content successively up the levels as needed. The content in the five sections will be used to determine whether sufficient interest exists to provide more details.
Website viewers could indicate whether they approve any policy proposal, and proposals will rise in rank based on their number of approvals. The higher the rank of a policy proposal, the higher the likelihood it will attract the attention of legislators for further evaluation. As a result, some proposals originating from citizens may be introduced as bills for consideration by the legislature.
The proposed system offers prizes for proposals that get introduced and become law. In addition to the incentive value of the prestige associated, the prize will provide a substantial financial reward. The reward would essentially be in compensation for the time it would take to develop an innovative, valuable public policy proposal, with some compensation for the risk of expending large amounts of time with no reward if the proposal is not adopted. Possibly $300,000 would be a reasonable average award amount. The award would vary based on the level of importance or complexity of the policy.
Prizes will encourage people with valuable knowledge and ideas not currently recognized by elite power holders and experts to offer valuable policy innovations that otherwise would not have been given consideration. Many people have high levels of expertise in areas where they do not have professional training or university credentials, or who are not in official policymaking positions, whose knowledge and skills in these areas we currently waste. This system will use this expertise and substantially increase public officials’ minimal exposure to innovative ideas for solving problems. It will help close the growing disconnect between the potential and practice of citizen participation.
It is widely acknowledged that people do not get involved in politics because of few opportunities, and current opportunities for involvement provide little or no power. Millennials feel particularly disenfranchised; their age group is voting in historically low percentages. This policy will be especially useful to them since they are the most Internet-savvy generation; it has been an important part of most of their lives. Also, millennials’ unemployment rate has been consistently higher than the national average (the national unemployment rate was 5.5% in February 2016, while millennials had an unemployment rate of 7.8%), so a disproportionately large percentage is not involved in productive work, despite high average education levels. (However, New Enlightenment era policies will eliminate the unemployment problem.)
Proposals input into the JAMES system, either from constituents or from legislators, will be organized by state and congressional district, and like lobbyist input, would be updatable. The JAMES system will offer a forum for a kind of national debate on public policy issues. All parties will be able to respond to one another’s input.
The JAMES system will substantially increase efficiency and transparency of communications with lawmakers. Congressional offices will be able to tally, track and respond to constituent opinion, and citizens will be able to see how their views compare to others by district, state, or for the entire nation.
When a representative supports a policy contrary to the majority of constituents expressing their opinions, he or she will be held accountable by the press and by the voters at election time. The will of the people, or at least those motivated to express their wishes, will be more transparent on a wide variety of issues.
Public interest groups would generally also prefer to use JAMES as their contact route. Most public interest groups can’t afford to hire enough lobbyists to schedule multiple meetings with every office, as corporations now can. JAMES will allow a more level playing field on which to compete. They will also be able to see what corporations are arguing and respond to their arguments and allegations. Likewise, corporations will be able to respond to their critics.
Members of Congress will also be able to post policy proposals that they have not yet formally introduced as bills to get public feedback to improve the proposal before writing the legislation. They will post to their individual district/state sub-pages to target comments to their constituencies. The search and sort functions will make it easy for constituents to determine where their senators and representatives stand on issues.
JAMES would be of immense help to congressional staffers and members of Congress who need to learn something quickly about an issue. The large volume of information that congressional staff has to deal with and the high turnover rates result in inadequate time to research issues sufficiently. The JAMES organizational and ranking system would help them do this more systematically, potentially transforming some staffers’ jobs.
Journalists would be able to learn more quickly and easily of all the groups and many of the people who are interested in a particular issue, giving them more choices on whom to interview and the ability to easily find a broad range of perspectives on the issue.
Most people will be able to use the JAMES system based on website instructions because we will design it to be as simple to use as possible. However, to ensure that everyone, or as many people as possible, can use the system, we will create a nationwide online training program for local librarians to prepare them for offering local citizens classes on JAMES’s functionality. The classes will be offered at local libraries periodically. An online training course designed for the public will also be available. JAMES system use will also be part of senior year high school social studies curriculum.
[i] Brookings Institution, A Better Way to Fix Lobbying, Lee Drutman
Further Supporting Unbiased, Well - Informed Policymaking
To further increase the ability of lawmakers to make unbiased, well-informed decisions, New Enlightenment era policy provides funding for increases in congressional staff numbers and pay. As previously noted, both constituent size and legislative importance and complexity warrant more and higher-paid staff. (The Dodd-Frank financial regulation law and the Affordable Care Act were each thousands of pages long.) Except for high-level congressional staff, annual salaries are between $30,000 and $60,000, with most about $45,000, while having to live in high cost of living Washington, DC. [i] Legislative assistants specialize in specific legislative fields. They assist with developing and monitoring legislation, and they devise strategies to pass legislation—clearly work of potentially enormous consequence.
The people working on issues worth billions, hundreds of billions, and ultimately even trillions of dollars earn less than the average surveyor ($59,180), and most often, less than a third of what the average dentist makes ($163,240).[ii] With a thriving market for talented lawmaker staff, low salaries, and difficult working conditions, inevitably, talented congressional staff members commonly leave the public sector for employment in the private sector. The average age of a DC-based House personal office staffer is 31. Ex-staffers who became lobbyists often increased their earnings by multiples, a value derived from their congressional employment. Higher legislative assistant pay is needed to maintain long-term and more knowledgeable assistants.
New Enlightenment era policy doubles the budget for congressional staff. In addition to reducing turnover rates, this will help attract better-qualified staff. The increased funds will also support staff increases, with each office deciding the division between staff number and pay increase. Each congressional office is currently allotted $945,000 to hire up to 18 staff members. Doubling this per member allotment results in a total increase in spending on staff of $506 million per year.
Each senator’s legislative assistance budget is about $478,000.[iii] We will double Senate legislative assistance budgets to serve the same purpose as the funding increase for congressional staff, again with each office deciding the division between staff number and pay increase. This increase amounts to $48 million total per year.
In 1995, Congress defunded the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). This left Congress with no experts to advise committees and members of Congress regarding decisions on national security, offshore oil drilling, transportation, energy, health, computer, biotech, nanotechnology, and many executive branch programs in science and technology worth trillions of dollars. Instead of decisions based on information and analysis provided by the impartial OTA, decisions have often been based on lobbyist supplied information designed to serve their clients’ needs.
For a budget of about $20 million a year, OTA produced over 700 peer-reviewed, high-quality reports and many more congressional testimonies by its staff between 1972 and 1995.[iv] Representative Amo Houghton (R-N.Y.) commented when the OTA was defunded that “we are cutting off one of the most important arms of congress, when we cut off unbiased knowledge about science and technology.”
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) strongly supports reinstating the OTA. After OTA was defunded, the UCS asserts, “The Department of Homeland Security spent three years pushing for a costly radiation detection system for smuggled nuclear material that did not work as promised, while neglecting to upgrade existing equipment that could have improved security.” Billions of dollars were wasted.
American Physical Society, the world’s largest organization of physicists, has condemned the missile defense project as unworkable, but the funding for these boondoggle contracts continues year after year, wasting billions. Risks of nanotechnology, biotechnology, and numerous medical devices continue to not be impartially assessed.
In 1985 an OTA report cautioned about the lack of preparedness and knowledge regarding potentially “catastrophic oil spills from offshore operations.” If the OTA wasn’t defunded, it might have followed up on this report with more specific warnings, and we may have averted the Deepwater Horizon disaster. The Minerals Management Service of the Interior Department, one of the worst examples of a “captured” regulatory agency of industry, did not advise Congress truthfully about the risks.[v]
Congress needs an independent, impartial technical adviser devoted to serving the needs of members of Congress and congressional committees. Separating valuable information from lobbyist spin is time-consuming and often requires a level of expertise that even the best and most well-trained congressional staff is not likely to have.
Fortunately, the office itself was just defunded, not abolished. In its last year of operation, the OTA had a budget of $21.9 million. We will restore its budget, adjusted for inflation, to $34.5 million.
We will increase the Congressional Research Service (CRS) budget of $107 million by 30%, also to support more and higher-paid research staff for lawmakers. The cost for the House and Senate staff funding support increase will be about $554 million, for the CRS funding increase about $32 million, and for the OTA $34.5 million, totaling about $621 million per year.
[ii] May 2012 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates, BLS and The Open House Project http://www.theopenhouseproject.com/2009/12/02/whats-the-average-salary-of-house-staff/
[iii] Congress and Senate staff budgets: CRS, Congressional Salaries and Allowances, Ida A. Brudnick January 7, 2014
[iv] The Nader Page, Time for OTA, https://blog.nader.org/2010/05/28/time-for-ota/
[v] https://blog.nader.org/2010/05/28/time-for-ota/ The proof of MMS’s “capture” is as appalling as it is abundant: staff failing to collect millions of dollars in royalties; oil and gas companies allowed to revise their own multi-million-dollar leasing bids; gifts and money from oil and gas companies to agency employees with whom the Service was conducting official business; social events with industry representatives that included illegal drug use and sex; an MMS inspector conducting inspections of oil drilling platforms while negotiating a job for himself with the company that owned those platforms (and finding no violations during those inspections), oil and gas company employees filled out official inspection forms in pencil to allow easy erasing and replacement of entries in pen by MMS inspectors; the industry cut and pasted Environmental Assessments from drilling projects in other parts of the world with no oversight from MMS (as evidenced by the inclusion of walruses – a cold water species which lives in Alaska – as a species of concern in the Gulf of Mexico); and MMS adopted wholesale a set of “best practices” for oil and gas drilling straight from the American Petroleum Institute, and then made these best practices only suggestions. Unfortunately, this phenomenon is not limited to MMS: during the Bush years financial regulators ignored dangerous practices on Wall Street and the world paid the price.
“Grassroots” Lobbying and Political Advertising
If grassroots lobbying is left poorly regulated, lobbyists will shift their resources to the tactic of influencing public opinion to influence legislation, so it will be even more important than it is now to better regulate grassroots lobbying. As noted previously, the New Enlightenment’s Fairness Doctrine will require air media to provide free, equal time immediately following a purchased public policy-related ad for an opposing view. If the ad advocates for the election of a particular candidate, all other candidates will be given equal time. And to further level the playing field needed for a true democracy, The New Enlightenment’s free candidate airtime policy will give candidates a large amount of airtime to respond to purchased ads.
Also, voters can better judge the reliability of the statements made when they know who is paying for them. New Enlightenment policy is that any organization that spends over $500 toward promoting any public policy or candidate, must disclose the amount spent and all of its $200 or more contributors. Disclosure of funding sources within 24 hours of receipt for interest groups doing public policy and candidate-related advocacy will be required.
Super PACs are required under current law to file reports with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) that disclose their contributors, contribution amounts, and expenditures, but disclosure can be delayed up to three months. Under current law, no one will know a possibly multimillion-dollar donation source until after the election if the money is given three months or less before the election. No good reason exists for allowing a 3-month delay for disclosures; it is easy to comply with a 24-hour limit.
Also running campaign TV ads that mention candidates are non-profit 501(c4) groups. They need not disclose their contributors and do not register as political committees with the FEC by claiming that they spend less than 49% of their funds on elections. Enforcement of the 49% limitation is rare. These non-profit groups are particularly attractive to individuals and corporations who fear a public backlash due to their support for a particular candidate. The $500 expenditure disclosure rule applies to all groups, so it will bring 501(c4) group’s “dark money” into the light.
Disclosure requirements will include identifying the top three contributors for any political ad on the ad. Also, we will post all disclosures with detailed identifying information on the FCC website.
Lobbying laws and political advertiser disclosure laws are poorly enforced. We will move enforcement responsibilities to the Department of Justice for more effective enforcement.
These New Enlightenment era reforms will be an essential part of creating a genuinely democratic government. They will also minimize the inappropriate use of public funds and save the public hundreds of billions in unwarranted tax breaks and costs resulting from corporate regulatory advantages, including artificially high consumer prices from semi-monopoly or monopoly power. Just considering that 30 corporations received rebates totaling $11 billion over three years, averaging $3.7 billion per year, based on their non-transparent lobbying efforts and the other examples described above, savings will be much larger than the $621 million per year cost for this policy. I do not take into account any estimate of the excess in our budget analysis, so the budget surplus will likely be larger than the estimate (for this reason, among others).