Jack Abramoff, the Washington lobbyist who’s pled guilty to charges of conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion, has showered millions of dollars on the campaign coffers of both Republican and Democrat congressmen. Like a kid caught with his hands in the cookie jar, many congressmen seek to distance themselves by purging their coffers of Abramoff money. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., in reaction to Abramoff’s guilty plea, has pledged to "examine and act on any necessary changes to improve transparency and accountability for our body when it comes to lobbying."
Whatever actions Congress might take in the matter of lobbying are going to be just as disappointing in ending influence-peddling as their Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, known as the McCain-Feingold bill. Before we allow ourselves to be bamboozled by our political leaders, we might do our own analysis to determine whether the problem is money in politics or something more fundamental.
Let’s start this analysis with a question. Why do corporations, unions and other interest groups fork over millions of dollars to the campaign coffers of politicians? Is it because these groups are extraordinarily civic-minded Americans who have a deep interest in congressmen doing their jobs of upholding and defending the U.S. Constitution? Might it be that these groups and their Washington-based lobby arms, numbering in the thousands, just love participating in the political process? Anyone answering in the affirmative to either question probably also believes that storks deliver babies and there really is an Easter Bunny and Santa Claus.
A much better explanation for the millions going to the campaign coffers of Washington politicians lies in the awesome growth of government control over business, property, employment and other areas of our lives. Having such power, Washington politicians are in the position to grant favors. The greater their power to grant favors, the greater the value of being able to influence Congress, and there’s no better influence than money.
The generic favor sought is to get Congress, under one ruse or another, to grant a privilege or right to one group of Americans that will be denied another group of Americans. A variant of this privilege is to get Congress to do something that would be criminal if done privately.
Here’s just one among possibly thousands of examples. If Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) used goons and violence to stop people from buying sugar from Caribbean producers so that sugar prices would rise, making it easier for ADM to sell more of its corn syrup sweetener, they’d wind up in jail. If they line the coffers of congressmen, they can buy the same result without risking imprisonment. Congress simply does the dirty work for them by enacting sugar import quotas and tariffs. The two most powerful committees of Congress are the House Ways and Means and the Senate Finance committees. These committees are in charge of granting tax favors. Their members are besieged with campaign contributions. Why? A tweak here and a tweak there in the tax code can mean millions of dollars.
You ask what can be done? Campaign finance and lobby reform will only change the method of influence-peddling. If Congress did only what’s specifically enumerated in our Constitution, influence-peddling would be a non-issue simply because the Constitution contains no authority for Congress to grant favors and special privileges. Nearly two decades ago, during dinner with the late Nobel Laureate Friedrich Hayek, I asked him if he had the power to write one law that would get government out of our lives, what would that law be? Professor Hayek replied he’d write a law that read: Whatever Congress does for one American it must do for all Americans. He elaborated: If Congress makes payments to one American for not raising pigs, every American not raising pigs should also receive payments. Obviously, were there to be such a law, there would be reduced capacity for privilege-granting by Congress and less influence-peddling.