“You see, boys forget what their country means by just reading The Land of the Free in history books. Then they get to be men they forget even more. Liberty’s too precious a thing to be buried in books . . . . Men should hold it up in front of them every single day of their lives and say: I’m free to think and to speak. My ancestors couldn’t, I can, and my children will. Boys ought to grow up remembering that.” Jefferson Smith, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
For those readers too young to recognize it, this line comes from the Frank Capra classic, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a film about an ordinary man who gets appointed to the U.S. Senate and finds himself at war with a corrupt and powerful political boss who threatens to ruin his life and reputation unless he plays by the rules of the Washington game. You see, Mr. Smith goes to Washington under the mistaken assumption that the representatives there actually give a fig about the welfare or wishes of their constituents. His illusions are shattered, of course, when he discovers that the agenda is set and the votes are cast largely based on the directives of a powerful few, in this case, a greedy blowhard by the name of Jim Taylor.
The plot might seem rather simplistic by today’s cinematic standards, and Jimmy Stewart’s melodramatic histrionics are downright laughable at times, but Capra’s portrayal of Washington’s modus operandi couldn’t be more accurate. If you’ve ever signed a petition or called your senator and been left feeling that your voice hasn’t really being heard, you probably aren’t being paranoid. The fact of the matter is that there are more Jim Taylor’s pulling the strings inside the Beltway than most of us realize.
I’m talking about lobbyists. If you want to understand what makes your congressman tick, and whose voice is in his ear when he’s casting his vote, you need to understand exactly what it is that lobbyists do and why their pervasive presence in America’s halls of government is so damaging to American democracy.
According to the website “Lobbying 101 – Understanding, Hiring, and Working with Lobbyists,”
“Lobbyists can offer a whole range of services, including:
- Represent you and your interests to the government, so you don’t have to be there in person doing it yourself most of the time.
- Help you develop relationships with people in government that can help you achieve your goals.
- Find and support “champions” within the government who are willing to push for your objectives from within.
- Identify potential customers within the many, many agencies, organizations, and offices in the government.
- Support your legal and political interests in new laws considered and enacted by Congress.
- Note that lobbyists do a lot of work writing actual legislation. They often propose text for new laws and give it to Congressional staffers (who are more than happy to have someone else do the work for them). So a good lobbyist can help get laws written with specific language that meets your objectives.
- Seek Congressional funding for specific projects or interests.
- Navigate the processes, politics, and regulations to successfully deliver a project after you’ve succeeded in getting it.”
In short, you give a lobbyist your money and tell them what you want, and they work their magic to translate your wants into legislation and votes. Well, you probably don’t give a lobbyist money, because you probably can’t afford it. However, there are plenty who can and do! For an eye-opener into the way Washington really works, take a gander at Kent Cooper’s recent article in Roll Call in which he lays out the top 25 organizations’ spending on federal lobbying in the first quarter of 2013. A veritable Who’s Who? of Big Business interests – including drug companies, oil companies and defense contractors – these entities spent a whopping $115,580,000 on lobbying just in the first three months of this year. Heading the pack was the US Chamber of Commerce, which dropped a cool $10 million to curry favor with the Pooh Bahs of the Potomac. Apparently this wasn’t sufficient to ensure its agenda is executed, so the Chamber’s Institute for legal reform added its proverbial two cents, coming in third with just over $6 million to make sure its voice is heard.
Make no mistake. Money is a megaphone in the world of politics. It amplifies the voice of the special interests in Washington in a way that the average citizen simply cannot match. As a result, your voice is drowned out and your interests are not served in the Federal City. The goals of our nation’s most powerful lobbying interests are often at odds with the priorities and concerns of the average citizen.
So in 2008, when Wall Street and the Big Banks teetered on the brink of collapse from their profligate business practices, Congress declared them “too big to fail” and provided them with billions of your taxpayer dollars to keep them afloat, thanks to the efforts of – you guessed it – their lobbyists. What special interests benefit financially from the trillions of dollars spent to fund our policies of interventionism and nation building around the world? America’s famed military-industrial complex – again thanks in no small part to the efforts of their lobbyists. A recent case in point: Congress is spending almost half a billion dollars to fund the production of more Abrams tanks, even though Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Ray Odierno and other top brass say the military doesn’t need them. But what’s $500 million between friends?
The solution? Take a page from Mr. Smith’s playbook. Refuse to be intimidated by the Jim Taylors of the world. Make sure your voice is heard at the polls. Insist that the candidates you support will put the interests of Main Street ahead of Wall Street, and hold them to it. Above all, never forget the corrupting influence that money has on the political and policymaking process.
I daresay our founding fathers never intended for government to exist as a for-profit, self-seeking enterprise. The original vision was for humble men of good will and at their own personal sacrifice to serve the public interest and protect the Constitution. The current setup could not be any further from this ideal. If we continue down this path, our Republic cannot long endure, because the kind of freedom Mr. Smith fought for cannot thrive.