Historian J. G. A. Pocock believes that, with its lobbyists, America has created “the greatest empire of patronage and influence the world has known.” He argues that the American Revolution was a response to fears of political corruption, and concerns about corruption also explain the Trump revolution of 2016. Now Elizabeth Warren proposes to eat Trump’s lunch by making corruption her issue in 2020.
When Trump promised to drain the swamp, he didn’t have to spell it out. Corruption was personified by Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Cash Machines that appeared to sell political access in return for charitable contributions. Beyond that was the network of lobbyists centered around Washington’s K Street, of which Pocock complained. Trump has ignored them, and he’s vulnerable on the issue.
In 2012, direct lobbying expenses amounted to $3.3 billion, about twice that of 2000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets blog. That’s more than the $1.2 billion both candidates spent in the 2012 presidential election, and it’s even more than $2.6 billion when one includes spending by the parties and outside groups on the presidential campaign. And of that $3.3 billion, only about 3 percent came from ideological donors or labor unions — groups like the NAACP and the American Federation of Teachers. The rest came from corporate America. If a sugar cartel succeeds in maintaining its wasteful subsidies, we shouldn’t be surprised.
No one wants to ban lobbying. When a new congressman comes to town, he’s dangerously ignorant about the consequences of his favored policies, and he needs the advice of lobbyists. Their right to inform him is usefully protected by the First Amendment’s right to petition the government. But that’s not a right to couple the request for legislative or regulatory action or inaction with a payoff to the congressman. That’s too much like a quid pro quo, and a ban would likely survive a constitutional challenge.
The need to tighten contribution limits is especially pressing today, given the increased amounts people can now give to candidates. With an individual limit of $366,100, 10 lobbyists in one firm could donate a total of $15 million to a presidential candidate or party organization over a four-year campaign cycle. They’ll be spending their client’s money to do so, and this amounts to an indirect repeal of the 1907 Tillman Act’s ban on direct corporate political contributions.
Along with banning their monetary contributions, lobbyists should be prohibited from “bundling,” in which they persuade a group of people to write checks for a candidate and then hand over all the checks to the candidate committee. The prohibition should also include organizing fundraising events, soliciting contributions, and serving on fundraising committees for a candidate. Beyond this, the ban might be extended to financial gifts in kind that go beyond the provision of information to officials, such as polling, mass communication efforts, and coalition building.
We also need stiffer “revolving door” rules that prevent public officials from taking a job as a lobbyist for an extended period of time after they leave office. On leaving their jobs, many congressmen and senior staffers become lobbyists and cash in on the contacts they have made. The Center for Responsive Politics reports that, out of an estimated 1,000 former members of Congress (many of whom are elderly), at least 285 were registered as lobbyists and a further 85 provided “strategic advice” for clients. In the cynical view of Tennessee Rep. Jim Cooper, Congress has become a “farm league” for a lucrative K Street job as a lobbyist.
A year ago, some senior D.C. liberals told me their game plan for 2020. Forget identity politics, they said. The election will be fought over meat and potato issues: jobs, health care, and the economy. And the candidate will be Warren, who’ll compete for Trump voters in the heartland.
Warren announced her plans about corruption last week, near the site of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire. She has some goodies for the principal Democratic interest group, the trial lawyers: she has proposed expanded rules for discovery. She’ll also want some constitutionally impermissible limits on campaign spending. (Just as well for her that that won’t go anywhere, since super PACs for Hillary Clinton in 2016 outspent Trump super PACS three to one.) But then she also proposed a ban on lobbyist political contributions, and that should have been a no-brainer for Trump. In 2016 he ran against corruption in politics but in 2020 he’ll be presented as the face of corruption.
F.H. Buckley teaches at Scalia Law School and is the author of The Republic of Virtue: How We Tried to Ban Corruption, Failed, and What We Can Do about It (Encounter, 2017).