- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 23, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

With the momentum of the Tea Party philosophy, we have an opportunity to control the undue influence of special-interest lobbyists and cut spending. It won’t be easy. Many new members of Congress will quickly become accustomed to the perks of elected office and want money for their re-election. Most will seek - or at least accept - substantial contributions from lobbyists.

Many lobbyists earn more than $1 million a year because they achieve desired legislation and get their clients a cut of the trillions in annual spending. It is safe to assume there will be much resistance by this group to significant change. Only if voters better understand the problem and the consequences will they insist on real change from their politicians in Washington.

Virtually every government program helps somebody. That somebody almost always hires a lobbyist or otherwise organizes to keep and expand benefits. As a result, literally thousands of lobbyists roam the halls of Congress, each usually representing multiple interest groups with contributors ready to donate to favored politicians. But the giving and accepting of contributions is only the beginning of undue special-interest influence. Lobbyists can raise campaign funds from others, produce independent campaign advertisements and mobilize their members to go door to door or meeting to meeting to support or oppose a Congress member’s re-election. Technology enables lobbying organizations to patch through hundreds of phone calls, faxes and letters urging the Congress member to vote a certain way. Committed support or opposition from a powerful lobby, such as labor unions, can sway an election.

The easy money and campaign assistance tempts Congress members to take the easy road. This is especially true when there is no organized group on the other side of the issue. When it comes to spending, too often that unorganized group is average taxpayers. Faced with the prospect of losing elected office, legislators must choose whether to stick with the principles on which they campaigned or “moderate” their positions in order to maximize financial assistance and campaign help from lobbyists and minimize opposition from vocal special interests.

Personal meetings can make a difference when a Congress member is deciding what legislation to support or oppose. When deciding whom to schedule for a personal meeting, most members tend to choose those who already have helped or who can influence the next campaign. Often a lobbyist seems to be both. Lobbying organizations also pay for a member’s contributors back home who are on the same side of an issue to come to Washington so they can gain time to lobby a vote. Hearing mostly one side of the issue gives that side the advantage. Because members rely heavily on their staffs for background and information on issues, their staffs also are lobbied.

Republican and Democratic caucus procedures exacerbate the problem. For example, leaders in both parties often assign fundraising quotas for their party’s committee and subcommittee chairmen, requiring them to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to support the re-election efforts of party incumbents. A member who opposes his party’s leadership risks losing substantial campaign funding for his next election, as well as losing favored committee assignments and having his proposed legislation buried in committee, never to come to the House floor. Strong, independent voices are isolated and marginalized.

Special interests that are affected by the decisions of particular committees are the most willing to raise money for that committee’s chairman. Chairmen, in turn, tend to pay more attention to the arguments and needs of those particular special interests. The same is true on a smaller scale for almost all committee members wanting to be re-elected. In addition to supporting favored members’ re-election efforts, the best lobbyists do their homework and tailor their arguments to each Congress member’s interests and legislative priorities. With today’s greater concern for deficit reduction, I suspect one argument will be that spending more now will save money in the long run or help the economy.

I’m often asked what an ordinary person can do in light of these depressing realities. First, don’t give up. Real reform in Washington is difficult but not hopeless. Second, read and stay informed. You are far more likely to recognize key issues and persuade with an informed opinion. Third, take advantage of any opportunity you have to talk personally with a member because it makes a difference, especially if 100 other voters express the same concerns. Fourth, stay involved and encourage others to do likewise.

What can Congress do? Transparency is good, but only to the extent that voters back home become aware of and appreciate lobbyists’ undue influence. I still support a constitutional amendment for 12-year term limits. That should be combined with not less than a five-year prohibition on former members and high-ranking staff (in Congress or the administration) working for lobbying firms or for any companies that employ lobbyists. We should try to stop Washington fundraisers and require that candidates raise at least one-half of the money spent in an election from contributors within their own districts. Gift restrictions in Congress and the administration need to be strengthened.

Some changes and better enforcement will help, but the best way to reduce spending and stop undue influence will be for dedicated members of Congress to stick to their guns and for the American voter to maintain the momentum of individual concern and personal involvement that made such a difference in this year’s elections. Finally, and maybe hardest, all of us need to be more self-sufficient, to solve more of our own problems and to ask less from government.

Nick Smith was a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Michigan from 1993 to 2004, when his self-imposed term limit expired.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

blog comments powered by Disqus

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide