If there’s one thing that the New York Times and Sarah Palin can agree on, it’s that Congress is full of money-grubbing crooks. The New York Times ran a column in September by Anand Giridharadas warmly praising a speech that Palin gave at a Tea Party Rally in Iowa. Palin, Giridharadas told Times readers, presented an insightful critique of the effect of money in politics, telling the crowd, “Do you want to know why nothing ever really gets done? It’s because there’s nothing in it for them [politicians]. They’ve got a lot of mouths to feed—a lot of corporate lobbyists and a lot of special interests that are counting on them to keep the good times and the money rolling along.”

Pretty much everyone hates Congress these days. Congress’s approval ratings have been below freezing for years. And as Palin’s speech demonstrates, Americans hate Congress in large part because they see it as beholden to lobbyists and special interests.

Indeed, lobbying is a major Washington industry. According to the Center for Responsible Politics, over 13,000 registered lobbyists spent $3.5 billion last year. They represented every type of organization you can think of, from General Electric, to the Girl Scouts, to Galena, Alaska, pop. 470—many local governments hire “hometown helpers” to help them secure federal dollars. And if history is any guide, the continuing budget debate will see these lobbyists vying hard to make sure their clients’ interests are protected from the effects of impending cuts.

Lobbying Hard

In the heat of the perennially popular pastime of lobbyist-bashing, it is easy to forget that lobbying is essentially an exercise of the First Amendment right to petition the government. At best, lobbying and advocacy is just another way for people to come to the government and seek redress. Lobbyists are highly knowledgeable advocates for different groups of Americans, and so provide invaluable information to lawmakers and government regulators by educating them on the industries and the individuals they will affect.

From the largest corporation to the smallest municipal government, everyone wants an opportunity to “seek redress” in various ways—often, to get a slice of that delicious pork. Michael Beckel of the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) told ARUSA that, “Historically, one of the areas that lobbyists very much have thrived in is securing federal money for their clients. Earmark lobbyists have been a thriving part of the lobbying community for decades.”

Craig Holman of Public Citizen is even harsher in his portrayal of lobbyist control over federal expenditures. Maintaining good relationships with powerful lobbyists, says Holman, becomes indispensible for career politicians. “To say no to a K Street lobbyist risks a $200,000 to $400,000 campaign expenditure against you in the upcoming election,” he says. This makes lobbyists, especially those representing the deep-pocketed Wall Street and the healthcare industries, “kingmakers” on Capitol Hill. Those industries, Holman believes, “dominate the appropriations and the budget debates.”

Those concerned about money in politics have become more alarmed since Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. This 2010 Supreme Court decision held that political spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment, thus striking down a provision of the McCain–Feingold Act that prohibited corporations and unions from broadcasting “electioneering communications.” As a result, corporations and unions, while still banned from contributing directly to campaigns, may spend unlimited sums of money to run ads supporting or denouncing candidates. Citizens United “opened the floodgates,” Holman says. He calculated a 427% increase in corporate spending in the 2010 elections.

The stage is set for scores of lobbyists to play a crucial role in the budget debates to come. Anytime big federal money is at stake, you can count on lobbying efforts to intensify.

For example, during the rise in defense spending that occurred in the decade after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, defense industry lobbying has nearly tripled. In 1998, calculates the CRP, the defense industry spent about $55 million on lobbying activities. In 2008, it spent $152 million.

And during the debate about the Recovery Act of 2009, jockeying for stimulus money became “the biggest game in town,” Michael Beckel at the CRP explains: “Nearly 20% of all clients—all companies, organizations, labor unions, lobbying firms—anyone that was paying anyone to lobby, was actively lobbying on the stimulus. That’s an astronomical number.”

Now there is even more federal money up for grabs. The Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (or “Super Committee”), a bi-partisan 12-member panel, has been charged with finding an additional $1.5 trillion in debt savings over the next decade. It should be of no surprise when the Super Comittee becomes, in the words of the CRP, “the target of a lobbying bonanza, as special interest groups work to keep their pet projects off the chopping block.”

As the battle for the budget begins, CRP’s online tool will allow you to search lobbying activities by industry and by politician. Note who is financing the re-election campaigns of committee members, and how that lines up with votes.  Almost no politician will go unsolicited.

“These industries really are controlling the budget process in Congress,” says Holman. “Something fundamental has to change on Capitol Hill.”

Design by Melissa Wong

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