Friday, February 10, 2006

Why Lobbying Reform Won't Work

So thanks to Jack Abramoff, both parties are getting into the whole "let's reform Washington" spirit. It'll last about another week.

Both proposals are predictable - limit lobbyist access to congresspeople, make campaign contributions more transparent, yadda yadda yadda. None of this will do anything, though. The problems are a lot deeper than Congresspeople want to admit.

Let's take the reform of so-called "earmarks" that has become a flashpoint for the debate over congressional ethics. I'm wary of removing earmarks, for one reason: the money will still go to the administration. It will just go as a block grant to a certain department, which can then do with it as it sees fit. This opens the door for all kinds of political abuses. Do you think this administration would hesitate to funnel the appropriated money towards "red states" and battleground states at the expense of Democratic-leaning areas? Do you think a Democratic administration would hesitate to turn the tables? Earmarks give Congress control over what happens to the money it appropriates, and ensure that districts represented by the minority party don't get left behind. Besides, some earmarks are honestly necessary. (Incidentally, pork accounts for a measley 1% of our total budget.)

There is a lot of earmark abuse, however. Ted Stevens' "bridge to nowhere" is a perfect example. But it continues because people like earmarks. People may talk about how government is wasting their money with pork-barrel projects and earmarked spending, but when the chips are down, people like having their neighborhood parking lot paved with federal money. That's why the incumbent will always beat out the anti-pork reformer: the incumbent can point to an appropriations bill and say, "Look what I've brought you." The subtext being: you wouldn't have projects like this anymore if you got rid of me. The result is a bunch of horse-trading; I'll vote for your bridge if you vote for my seaport. Don't oppose my bridge or your highway gets it.

The point is that abuse of Congressional appropriations power will continue as long as people continue to expect the federal government to fund local projects. People reward their representatives for getting funding for their local highway more than they would a pork-slasher who would use the savings to cut taxes or improve social services. Congresspeople aren't addicted to pork - voters are.

Lobbying reform won't make any changes either. Congress will continue to grant legislative favors to the people bankrolling their campaigns. You need money to win an election, after all. And that's the big structural problem. There's a phrase to describe a congressperson who refuses to go to bat for his campaign contributors: out of a job. Again, the problem here is the voters. We are too easily influenced by the advertisements and the PR campaigns that money can by. Not enough people take the amount of time necessary to actually learn about the candidates and make an informed decision. This doesn't make a difference when the advertising campaigns wash each other out, as in a presidential race or a competitive senatorial race. However, when there's a distinct funding gap, it gives the better-funded candidate the opportunity to distort the identity of his/her opponent and makes the votes of the well-informed almost unimportant.

Government could try to solve the second problem by funding all candidates equally and forbidding them from using outside money. As McCain-Feingold found out, though, this gets into free-speech issues, and there's always the dilemma about what to do with third-party/independent candidates. In all honesty, the solution lies with every voter. First, reward your congressperson for concentrating on national priorities and not giving in to the temptation to get federal money for your driveway. Second, ignore campaign ads and take the time to make an informed decision about every election. If every person makes those two reforms, it will solve a lot more problems than Congress could ever hope to solve.


Ben said...

Another thing with lobbying reform is that you can't really eliminate lobbyists from the system. They provide information. What, you think Congresspeople are experts on everything they legislate? They often hear about issues and find out the info about such issues because of lobbyists.

Of course, knowledge is power and lobbyists are going to present the info that favors their side. But, until we get a better system of info-gathering (congressional hearings aren't enough), I think lobbyists are kinda indispensible (sp?).

I wish there was some way to deal with obvious, Abramoff-style influence-peddling, though.

Anonymous said...

You've essentially laid out my argument that the income tax should be abolished.

The income tax is the fundamental root fo the problem, not the voters, nor the congressman, nor even the lobbyists.

The problem is the income tax creates an almost limitless government funded pie for every freeloader to try and scramble for a piece. Congress worries not about deficits and overspending (despite their pretense), since they can always raise the income tax rate later (what are you gonna do to protest, not go to work?)

As long as that limitless pie exists, you are going to have everyone and their brother wanting to do whatever it takes to get that piece of the pie. This makes any attempt by either voters or congressmen to "fix" the system futile.

Kill the income tax, and you kill special interests influencing elections. Extreme? Maybe. But extreme problems call for extreme solutions.

- miguel

Jeff said...

I don't think the income tax is a "limitless" deal. Raise the income tax too much, and other things happen - the economy tanks, for example. Besides, there are huge political implications for anyone who even speaks the words "tax hike" anymore. Ask Walter Mondale, the elder George Bush, and the 1993 Democrats.

You do raise an interesting point, however unintentionally. As a result of people's zeal to get government funds, those who honestly need help get lumped in with those who just want to hoard pieces of the pie for themselves, and they all get called "freeloaders," irrespective of their actual need.

I have a hunch that our problems lie not in "overspending" or providing too many social programs. They exist in spending inefficiently, directing revenue away from those who need it and towards those who don't. Everyone should be responsible for making an honest assessment of whether their favorite government program is really necessary. You'll find that a lot of them are.

Mike said...

I don't think the income tax should be abolished. Even those who think the only government spending should be maintaining a militia have to admit there needs to be money to do that, and it has to come from somewhere.

Jeff, what you describe as inefficient spending is what most people call overspending. Many government programs are overfunded. Others are underfunded. Personally, I wonder when we lost sight of Amendment X, which relegates much of the power the federal government now claims as implied to the States and the people.