Much has been made recently over the ethics of House members, especially a certain majority leader from Texas. It tends to center on the practice of accepting perks from lobbyists - free trips and the like. It's not just DeLay - influential politicians from both sides of the aisle accept free or almost-free trips on corporate jets, according to this Post article. The question arises, though: are these gifts are an attempt by corporations to "purchase" helpful policy from pliable legislators, or are they attempts to help out a Congressperson who has been helpful to them in the past?
Sometimes it's obviously in the former category. Of course, it's debatable that such tactics had a lot of success. Huntsman Corp., a major manufacturer of MTBE, flew around Harry Reid and Tom Daschle a lot, but both ended up supporting restrictions on MTBE in gasoline anyway. Some might point to Huntsman's gifts to DeLay, and similar gifts from anti-regulatory lobbying interests such as BellSouth, as influencing policy. But DeLay tends to be ideologically anti-regulation, and would probably vote the way BellSouth or Huntsman wants him to regardless of gifts.
So how much does corporate money influence politics? Certainly at campaign time it matters a lot. Corporations benefit from having elected officials with a certain ideological bent, and can bolster the campaigns of these officials significantly. They can also bring to lawmakers' attention issues of importance to them. But I posit to you that corporate money generally isn't changing the minds of congresspeople, so it's tough to argue that corporations are buying votes. I doubt it's fair to anyone on the Hill - DeLay included - to say that they're "in the pocket" of Corporate America.
It seems to me, then, that corporate influence is truly felt in the power to introduce issues, to select Congress' agenda. And here, it's not the money that's directly driving this phenomenon - it's the access lobbyists have to certain members of Congress. Corporate lobbyists can get the ear of Congresspeople and introduce issues to powerful lawmakers who share their ideology (such as DeLay). As a result, corporations can get things considered that would otherwise be ignored by the legislative process. Why else would Congress have taken up bankruptcy and Social Security when far more looming, troubling questions exist? The answer lies in the massive access to the legislative process enjoyed by the banking and investment industries. In a way, this is more insidious than the direct purchasing of votes. But I got news for you - it's not going away. It's not unethical to tell your friends on the Hill what's ailing you, and asking them to find a solution, and then giving money to them because they do a good job. Instead of whining about it, liberals should work to become more effective at lobbying, at getting access to Congresspeople. In the end, this will be far more effective than all the ethics rules we could come up with. Even with stricter ethics rules, access isn't going to be given to us; we have to take it.