By Bryce Bower, Editor-in-Chief
You hear the term “lobbyist” all the time in the news, but I would wager most Americans don’t even know what one is. As a youngster I always assumed lobbyists were people who were paid to march outside of senators’ offices holding picket signs, and yelling about how important the meat industry is. I wasn’t that far off. A dictionary definition of a lobbyist would be something like “a person who represents an interest group who tries to persuade influential people to support their client”. My childhood mental picture of lobbying is a good metaphor, but the reality involves a lot more money.
How much more money? In 2015 corporations spent more on lobbying than it cost to fund the entire House of Representatives and the Senate combined. That’s right, $2.6 billion was spent by businesses on lobbying while Congress required “only” $2.06 billion. In 2016 there were roughly 10,000 people in DC whose job was to rub elbows with policymakers and bigwigs of the US Government. That’s a lot of money in the hands of a few people. Now technically, members of Congress are prohibited from accepting any “gifts” from lobbyists. But a gift can be so hard to qualify sometimes.
Scandals can be found anywhere in the government. But when it comes to influencing policy and laws, one would hope that people would uphold higher standards. But the sheer power of legislation invites some of the juiciest crimes. In 2005, Jack Abramoff and three other lobbyists were hired by Native American tribes to represent their interests. The lobbyists overcharged their clients to the tune of roughly $85 million. They were also found to have given gifts to state legislators, who in turn voted in their clients’ favor. I was amazed to read that these gentlemen secretly hired other lobbyists to lobby against themselves – so they could raise their own prices. These guys were so innovative I was surprised to find they had not attended ASU. (#1 in innovation)
In the end, Abramoff served four years in prison and had to repay about $26 million. But we only know his story because he got caught – I am sure these kinds of things happen all the time. Indeed, scandal hit a little closer to home in 2017, as Arizona saw a government regulator, a utility company owner, and a lobbyist indicted on charges of bribery, felony conspiracy, and six counts of fraud. How often does this go unnnoticed, though?
I don’t think this is how a capitalist democracy is supposed to function, but money is so systemically ingrained in our politics that I am not sure it can be fixed. If it could be fixed, the scariest thing for a legislator, lobbyist, or donor would be transparency. Imagine if the men and women of congress were required to wear the names of their donors on their clothes, like NASCAR does with their sponsors. I think voting records would start to make a lot more sense.
OpenSecrets.org is a neat website that tracks political donations, i.e. who made the donation, how much was it, and whether it went to Democrats or Republicans. In the 2018 election cycle, organizations like Bloomberg, Alphabet, Microsoft, the American Federation of Teachers, and the Steelworkers Union – just to name a few – donated tens of millions of dollars in favor of the Democratic or Republican parties. No one gives their money away for free. My rhetorical question is: what do you think these organizations get in return for their money? The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act outlaws bribery of any kind by American people in other countries. Yet when Bloomberg donates $95 million to the Democratic party, and Las Vegas Sands gives $61 million to Republican politicians and legislators, it’s not bribery? You know they are getting something in return, or they wouldn’t continue to donate such large chunks of change.
Let’s take coal as an example. By the way, the current head of the Environmental Protection Agency is a former coal industry lobbyist – which explains a lot. According to Matt Gray of Carbon Tracker, an independent think-tank that specializes in how energy transition affects capital markets, more than half of the world’s coal plants are actually operating at a loss. “Lobbying and cronyism, that’s the only thing that can save coal,” he told the British newspaper Independent. According to his analysis, America would actually save $78 billion by shutting down only the coal plants that are in violation of the Paris climate agreement. (Which President Trump pulled out of) If China were to shut their offending plants down, they would save an estimated $389 billion dollars. Generating one megawatt from solar power now costs less than half of what a megawatt from coal costs. I believe this speaks for itself. Political and legislative “influencers” have kept these unprofitable plants alive.
Western nations have a very particular view on what bribery is and is not. I am not talking about the kind of bribery like when a company has to pay the police a protection fee, I am referring here to a “facilitation fee”. We pay these fees all the time, we never call them by that name though. Amazon Prime subscriptions are based primarily on their free two-day shipping policy. What does paying for two day shipping really mean? It means we are paying for preferential treatment. You pay extra at the Post Office to have them prioritize your letter, and get it there before other people’s letters arrive. How is this different than paying a “facilitation fee” in non-Western nations? You would pay extra money to have your letter to grandma arrive in time for her birthday. But is it a corrupt act to “bribe” a government worker to install phone lines in your new office today? Why is this considered evil, when campaign donations or American lobbyists are totally fine?
When I brought this up in one of my classes this semester, the professor responded that the difference is transparency. In certain situations I agree, but I can’t shake the feeling that ethnocentrism is also to blame. American culture is very low-context, so we have to spell a lot of things out with words. In high-context cultures, like China or Russia, these rules are not spelled out clearly, but everyone understands them as rules. Other countries may view a “bribe” as something everyone knows about, and therefore it is transparent in that culture. Maybe it’s time for America to take a look at some of its own corrupt domestic practices, before judging those of other countries.