Washington Examiner Lobbying Editor Tim Carney spoke at the Cato Institute today. Carney discussed his new book, Obamanomics: How Barack Obama is Bankrupting You and Enriching His Wall Street Friends, Corporate Lobbyists, and Union Bosses, with Dr. Uwe Reinhardt of Princeton University and New York Times Columnist Ross Douthat.
Carney absolutely shreds the idea pushed by pro-regulation groups that Obama’s war on lobbyists have reduced the influence of interest groups and lobbyists in Washington.
The nexus of Carney’s argument is that whenever the government gets involved with economic matters, it opens doors for special interests who ultimately get their way. Both Republicans and Democrats cut deals with their respective corporate allies and special interests to advance legislation and expand government. Accordingly, these special interests are more than willing to pony up the cash necessary to win increased regulation or additional government spending, much to the detriment of their competitors not at the legislative table. Every time the government gets bigger, the person with the best lobbyist ultimately wins and makes a killing doing it.
He didn’t mention it, but federal contribution limits also foster this lobbying fundraising cycle as lawmakers cannot raise large donations in seed money for the campaigns because of arbitrarily low contributions limits. So members of Congress are forced to constantly vacuum up the low-hanging fruit from lobbyists and other D.C. power-players to fund effective campaigns.
Both Reinhardt and Douthat agreed with Carney that this is unfortunately the state of Washington politics, regardless of who is in charge. However, Reinhart didn’t pull any punches when he offered his opinion as to why special interests can “buy” favorable legislation:
“Blame the First Amendment” he said. The Founders, in his opinion, created an inferior form of government that allows moneyed interests to buy and sell the souls of our legislators in the name of free speech. In response to a question from an audience member who asked him if unlimited political contributions might counteract the power and influence of special interests by making the political system more pluralistic and giving more people an opportunity to participate in politics, Dr. Reinhardt said that suggestion would only make things worse since it would further entrench the interest groups that already own the government.
It’s unfortunate that Dr. Reinhardt doesn’t have more faith in a free and open political system. As CCP Chairman Brad Smith has noted, campaign finance “reform” has traditionally been a vehicle for some special interests to shut others out of the political process. Whether it was the railroad interests in the early 1900s or labor unions in the 1940s, various groups have seen their political speech rights taken away in the name of the “public interest” over the past century. The result of this “reform” has been the institutionalization of influence peddling, complex regulation and the criminalization of political speech by average citizens — the things that Dr. Reinhardt bemoans about the American system.
The best remedy to the ills that Carney describes is to open up the political process to as many people and groups as possible by removing restrictions on campaign contributions and political speech and allowing everyone to engage in a serious discussion over what the nation’s legislative priorities ought to be. If the “reforms” of the past century have taught us anything, it’s that rationed political speech benefits the politically well-connected, not the nation at-large.