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Special Interests' Excessive Influence over the U.S. Congress Make it Dysfunctional and have Become Critical


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The first step is to determine if Problems of special interests' excessive control over the U.S. Congress are so critical that they warrant a major effort to solve them.

At present, only Congress has the legislative authority partially to solve these Problems. However, any effective solution would potentially lead to limits on congresspersons' perquisites and reduce the advantages of wealthy special interests group contributors. Inevitably, Congress avoids taking meaningful, loophole-free, long-term action.

The Founding Fathers could not foresee the persuasive powers of today's media age and its huge costs. These have now created Problems far beyond the scope of our current system of constitutional checks and balances, which clearly need updating. Therefore, this discussion is not a condemnation either of special interest groups, which have the first Amendment right to petition the Government, or of Congress, whose members must accept large contributions for successful reelection campaigns. With some inevitable exceptions, all parties discussed below are acting legally, because the un-amended Constitution cannot take care of the imbalances that have arisen.

Nevertheless, the fundamental concepts of our republic are defined in the Preamble of the Constitution—it should be a government of we the people that promotes the general welfare. To promote special interests over the people is dysfunctional.

Institutionalization of Problems

In fact, many of our representatives initially run for office with the best intentions of working diligently for the People. Once seated, freshmen find that they can achieve nothing without the support of longer-serving members and a willingness to trade favors for that support. Many of these older members have become very powerful because, for example, they have:

  1. Inherited power as senior committee members or chairpersons

  2. Built and are familiar with a system of complex and self-serving rules

  3. The ability to influence allocation of special interests' contributions to incumbents

  4. Built their quid-pro-quo favor-exchange network

  5. The ability to influence budget allocations

The freshman members usually decide that achieving something for their constituents is better than achieving nothing, so they yield to the pressure of other members. As time goes by they accept that these are the rules by which they must play or they must leave their vocation. Believing (perhaps correctly) that they can juggle this moral dilemma game better than most, they decide to stay and abide by the rules, making the best of the system that they cannot change, and later completing the cycle as an older member. Normally, no laws are broken—but then, Congress currently makes all the laws and sets its own rules without any enforceable oversight. Since almost everyone in Congress eventually joins the game, the game is the norm and no longer appears as a moral issue. Despite all these obstacles, the system does produce some good for the People, though less than in the past and much less than is possible. Eventually, most congresspersons do not want to modify the system because it is their way of life. They have succumbed gradually to the trappings of power and prestige that few can resist. As a result, Congress has institutionalized the Problems; they cannot and will not solve them.

Evidently, a deep constitutional vacuum has caught Congress and special interests, which they are collectively unable to change. They must work as best they can until the Problems are solved for them by the only ones who can wield the power to change things—the People through their States.

Ultimately, it is the People's initial responsibility to wield their power since we are the victims. Moreover, it is the People's moral responsibility to regulate the temptations to which we expose those we elect—as, for example, we would hold a business to be grossly negligent if it persistently exposes its employees to inappropriate temptations. Special interest groups and congresspersons are subject to their situation and their human nature—their collective behavior cannot change of its own accord.

If, out of apathy we should fail to accept this responsibility, then "we have met the enemy and they is us". Even worse, we impose the legacy of an intergenerational tyranny of debt and failure on our children and grandchildren, making them the principal victims of our apathy.

Primary Cause of the Problems

Running for congressional office is hugely expensive in today's costly media age and there is every reason to believe that the costs will continue to increase in the future. Candidates must raise extremely large campaign financing. The result is that many of our elected representatives have a conflict of interests in promoting the general well-being of the people. Instead, a wide range of wealthy special interests groups decides whom to finance that they may become candidates. Once elected, both the candidate and the special interests try to assure continual reelection.

The special interest groups and those they represent expect a good return on their political investments. If they did not receive these returns, they would not make the investments.

This excessive special interest influence is a serious and urgent Problem. It is not "business as usual". It has created a dysfunctional congress. The problem grows daily and will become irreversible if we do nothing. Our government ordained by the People is fast becoming a permanent ruling class of representatives who are controlled by special interest money with the Media to manage the Peoples' votes—in effect a surrogate plutocracy. As media's power to influence elections and election campaign costs grow ever greater, the likelihood that we will inexorably lose our Republican form of Government is very real. We urgently need a solution before we reach the point of no return—if we cannot solve the Problems then we have past the point of no return.

These Problems Seriously Harm the People

Some examples of the many and varied ways in which excessive influence by special interests causes government to become dysfunctional and to harm us are:

  1. Waste and Inefficiency

    $231 billion in 2005, $2 trillion over the next five years, are being lost to government waste and pork barrel projects. For example:

    1. Congress is unwilling to adopt rules or propose a constitutional Amendment preventing unrelated and/or last minute amendments to bills—amounting to $27.3 billion for 13,997 pork barrel projects in fiscal 2005.

    2. Congress is unwilling to propose a constitutional Amendment to reintroduce an effective form of the presidential line item veto. Over 90 percent of State Governors endorse and 86 percent of the States use this cost-effective approach to controlling "pork".

  2. Encourage Excessive Lobbying

    Special interests make massive contributions to buy media to help ensure election of their Candidates. Special interests finance Washington lobbyists to represent them to Government. Though special interests have always influenced our government (as is their right under Amendment I) only in recent times have they been able to use such powerful and expensive media. Congresspersons are taking the political maxim "reward your friends and punish your enemies" to new extremes.

    Disclosures of filings by lobbyists are available from the US Senate. In 2004, there were 34,785 registered lobbyists—65 lobbyists per congressperson. This is an increase of 113 percent since 2000, when there were 16,342 lobbyists. Many of the lobbyists are ex-congresspersonsfrom 1998 to 2004, 43.4% of departing congresspersons became lobbyists. The increasing numbers of lobbyists and related financial expenditures give special interests tremendous influence over the People's representatives. These lobbyists would not retain jobs if they were not producing important results and leveraging the profits for their employers.

    Of course, there are not enough elected representatives to meet with all these lobbyists. What generally happens is that elected representatives open the doors for lobbyists to meet with government staff. It is in such meetings that the details are incorporated, leading eventually to congressional legislation and appropriations. Moreover, there are such bewildering quantities of specialized details that the lobbyists often get the wording that their special-interest employers want without much critical scrutiny. If and when any of the public-interest watch-dog organizations or news media find out what has happened it is usually too late for news-worthy comment, much less to stop or reverse the action. It should be noted that not all lobbying is problematical—government needs ready access to outside specialist knowledge—the problem today is that lobbying has become abusive as a result of its excesses.

    In 2004, the federal lobbying budget was $2.1 billion. Special interest groups are sophisticated and clever. They expect an excellent return on their investment. Obviously, they are getting it; they would never make these huge and increasing investments without benefit. Generally, lobbying expenditures come out of capital or profits. Corporate profits are a small fraction of income—typically about 8 percent. Thus, the amount of value received from all this lobbying must be worth over $25 billion of business just to cover the known lobbying expenses. For the profit to be worth the effort, the actual value must be many times greater—over a hundred billion dollars.

    As a result, Congress is placing wealthy special interest's interests ahead of the People's interests. This is dysfunctional and creates many harmful Problems for the People. Wealthy special interest benefits generated by lobbying is in part derived from the documented hundreds of billions of dollars in waste, inefficiency, inappropriate use of funds, and unfunded obligations imposed on the States and Cities.

    Thus, by exacerbating instead of resolving these problems, Congress denies the People their right under the Preamble to the Constitution that Government must promote the general welfare (well-being and happiness) of the People.

  3. Deny the People Their Right to Choose Their Representatives

    Congresspersons go to great lengths to be re-elected. Their cumulative efforts over time result in de facto control of the election process to the degree that our vote is no longer for a meaningful choice and most votes are wasted because they cannot affect any outcome. Congress has the power to remedy these problems, but it takes no effective action.

    1. Campaign Financing

      Special interest groups' financial control of media throughout the election process advances their chosen candidates and discourages other good candidates from running. In fact, to maximize their influence in today's electoral party races, special interest groups can often pre-select both parties' candidates before they even announce their candidacy or create a situation where seats go uncontested. In effect, special interest groups control the slate of candidates for whom the People may vote.

    2. Power of the Media

      In 1787, our Constitution’s Founding Fathers could never have imagined today’s 500-channel 24x7 television information age and how special interests groups use it to manipulate news and influence our elected representatives and our government. They could not have foreseen Teleprompters, acting lessons, sound bites, photo opportunities, dial-group instant feedback, astrosurfing (astroturfing via Internet), narrowcasting and microtargeting, and all the ways some candidates now use to become chameleons who are all things to all people, never letting their real passions and character be seen least they offend some voters. The massive mergers and loss of ownership diversity that government permits in the organizations that have first-amendment rights in order that they furnish us with the truth would have appalled them. They would have been more appalled at the professional spin doctor and political actors who manipulate news so as deliberately and repeatedly to mislead the public, eventually creating the big lies that become the perceived truth. The world beyond our immediate physical contact is increasingly becoming a virtual world, where we often cannot distinguish factual from virtual reality, truth from lies, reasonable from illogical.

      Starting with the televised Kennedy-Nixon debates in 1960, federal candidates have communicated with us largely through this virtual world. The cliché "the medium is the massage" has become an everyday political fact of life, controlling the politicians and their messages to a degree that responsible politicians and serious voters deeply resent. "The average sound bite or block of uninterrupted speech fell from 42.3 seconds for presidential candidates in 1968 to only 9.8 seconds in 1988. In 1968 almost half of all sound bites were 40 seconds or more, compared to less than one percent in 1988." (K. Adatto p. 25) Though it may be the only way to get media coverage and thereby to get elected, politicians loose a large part of their credibility when media does not allocate enough time to hear their case. The People simply do not know who or what to trust. Consequently, disillusion with politicians' trustworthiness is widespread.

      In 1983, U.S. media was dominated by 50 substantial corporations. Today, 24 years later, these 50 companies have essentially merged into five international conglomerates (BHB p. 5). The antitrust laws, the fairness doctrine, a public voice in licensing and FCC regulation are now virtually meaningless (BHB p. 136-141). Congresspersons treat these media giants with respect, for they can make or break any politician without effort. They are amongst the most powerful special interest groups. To all intents and purposes, the these five companies now control much of what U.S. Citizens learn, or do not learn, about political candidates (BHB p. 135). Because Congress is the branch of government with the power to legislate a change in this situation, the failure to prevent this consolidation of media power belongs in large to Congress.

    3. Gerrymandering

      Gerrymandering has a parallel and additive impact. Though congressional redistricting is the responsibility of the States, special interests promoting a specific congressperson and party have a major influence on the process. In 36 states, redistricting is the responsibility of the state legislature; in seven states (AZ, HI, ID, NJ, WA and WV), redistricting is done by independent means; and seven states (AL, DE, MT, ND, SD, VT and WY) have only a single district (Wikipedia).

      Gerrymandering has the effect of redrawing voting boundaries so that members of the first group make their votes more effective than the votes of a second group. It wastes the second group votes artificially—thereby voiding their vote and their right of choice. Gerrymander works by packing opponents' votes into redrawn districts where the opponents will already win, and by distributing the remainder into redrawn districts where opponents become a minority. It particularly favors incumbent congresspersons because they generally influence the drawing of the voting boundaries—and the effects are far from trivial. For example, if two parties have an equal number of votes, it is possible to gerrymander so that one party gets three times as many seats as the other. Sophisticated computer mapping systems, which require substantial financial support, design gerrymandering today. Consequently, special interest money is again crucial. 

      Voters should choose which political party should be in power; instead, congresspersons, special interests and political parties choose their voters to assure their power. In the House of Representatives, about 190 seats are safe for each party, leaving only 55 seats (i.e., 13 percent) where the outcome is open.

    4. Congressional Seniority System

      The seniority system first emerged in the 1840s and became ensconced about 1910. Seniority rights, based on length of service on a committee, are customs rather than rules. Provided they are reelected by their constituents and regardless of their merit, members elected to a committee normally remain to become powerful chairpersons. Thus, Congress is inherently unrepresentative(Levinson p. 27)—the representatives of some voters are continuously more powerful than the representatives of other voters.

      This type of unequal vote of our representatives makes some voters more powerful than other voters for prolonged periods. Of course, temporary unequal votes are an unavoidable fact of political life; the problem is the duration of the inequality and the lack of necessity of the inequality. Though some reforms have occurred, e.g., the use of caucus and secret ballot, the inequalities remain.

    Their almost-permanent reelection benefits both the congressperson and the special interest groups—especially as seniority dictates who gets the power positions in Congress. The old problem has grown hugely over time. In the first half of our republic, repeated reelection was almost inconceivable and one or two terms were the norm. From 1830 to 1850, turnover in the House averaged 51.5 percent. Today, House Representatives seeking reelection (1998) spent nearly five times more than their opponents spent and had over 98 percent reelection success rate. Subsequent re-election rates have not changed much—98 percent in 2000, 96 percent in 2002. Senate re-election rates also favor the incumbent, but not by as large a margin—90 percent in 1998, 79 percent in 2000, and 86 percent in 2002.

    These effects on governance are statistically significant. The World Bank keeps data on each county's "Voice and Accountability" indicator. "Voice and Accountability includes in it a number of indicators measuring various aspects of the political process, civil liberties, political and human rights, measuring the extent to which citizens of a country are able to participate in the selection of governments". The United States has descended from 10th place in 1996 to 24th place in 2005. The following 14 countries have overtaken us: Andorra, Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Iceland, Ireland, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Marshall Islands, Palau, Portugal, Reunion and United Kingdom. Though there are still many countries in the world below us, almost all of the original EU countries are now above us. It is worth noting here that Switzerland ranks from first to sixth, and averages fourth. Significantly, in 1891 when the Swiss used the U.S. Constitution as a federal model, they also adopted nationwide initiatives.

    Thus, wealthy special interest groups, and Congress by exacerbating instead of resolving these problems of wasted votes and voter choice, deny the People's right under Article1 Section 2 of the constitution to choose their representatives.

  4. Act Against the People on Social, Ethical and Legal Issues

    Our representatives act against the Peoples’ interests on vital long-term social, ethical and legal issues. For example:

    1. Massive media mergers have allowed special interest groups increasingly to filter and manipulate news information—and thereby their excessive influence over our government. This is part of a trend to ignore monopoly laws. For most of the last century, these laws were the People's assurance that our capitalist system would remain competitive and efficient.

    2. Cheaper medical drugs are available in other countries at international pharmaceutical prices but not in the U.S. Moreover, congressional legislation prevents the federal government from negotiating the prices of drugs supplied through Medicare. In both cases, the congressional legislation ignores American free-market anti-monopoly ideals.

    3. Congress is unwilling to propose a constitutional Amendment setting congressional term limits that would prevent their own almost-permanent reelection. In January 1997, a proposed Constitutional Amendment set House and Senate limits of 12 years each, for a combined total of 24 years in Congress. However, it failed to get the necessary support to pass. Public opinion is strongly in favor of congressional term limits.

      Many States have term limits for their State legislators. Twenty-two States set term limits for their congressional representatives. However, in 1995, the Supreme Court's five-to-four decision (U.S. Term Limits v. Thornton) determined that states do not have the authority to limit the terms of their Congresspersons.

      In the absence of an Amendment, Congresspersons could voluntarily limit their terms. Less than two dozen congresspersons chose to be self-limiters. The National Taxpayers Union Foundation (NTUF) found that self-limiters proposed budget cuts of about $15 billion annually. On the other hand, non-self-limiters with the same seniority proposed average increases over $15 billion. Furthermore, the eleven longest-serving congresspersons proposed increases of nearly $60 billion a year. Though these data are not statistically conclusive, they are indicative.

    4. Under the influence of special interest and political obligations, the Congress has come to focus excessively on short-term issues, expediency and party politics. As a consequence, Congress inadequately addresses its long-term leadership responsibility to ensure that government comply with the Constitution.

    5. As the top legislative branch of Government in the nation, Congress sets a moral and ethical example for the nation. Congressional failures are publicized and apparent to every person and organization in the U.S. By their tolerance of excessive influence in high places, Congress encourages a decline in moral and ethical standards cascading throughout government, business and the nation. There is no way to evaluate the financial and moral costs of this decline, but many Citizens believe them to be pervasive and appalling.

    6. Increasingly, the companies that employ us are the same specials interests that control us through their surrogates—our elected representatives. The flat playing fields needed for an effective capitalist system yield to competition by paid political influence. We know that some of this is inevitable, that it has always happened, that it is part of our human nature, but today it is far worse and growing. Without adequate adjustment to our system of checks and balances, special interests' control of government steadily transforms the U.S. into a surrogate plutocracy and, if their power consolidates over time, perhaps a form of totalitarianism.

  5. Creates Hidden and Unfunded Debt on Our Descendents

    Congress hides huge government overspending in financial obligations unilaterally imposed on the States, Cities and in debts upon our children. For example:

    1. The NCSL (National Conference of State Legislatures) identified at least $29 billion of cost shifts that require state expenditures for federally mandated programs in 2004.

    2. A typical family of four owes national debt of $104,000 that the government has borrowed in their names. Their family's national debt increased by $8,000 in 2004 (debt increase was $595 billion and population was about 295 million).

  6. Apply Policies that Harm the People, Often in Favor of Top Executives and International Special Interests

    International corporate interests help send our middle class into decline. Export of jobs to increase executive pay and boost corporate profit—2.7 million manufacturing jobs lost from 2000 through 2003—will continue if unresolved. Many major U.S. corporations have now become multi-national, so they look for the lowest costs and the nationality of their employees does not affect them significantly. Their special interest groups and lobbyists have a multi-national rather than U.S. agenda.

    Between 1978 and 2005, CEO pay increased from 35 times to nearly 262 times the average worker’s pay. In contrast, men who were in their thirties in 1974 had median incomes of about $40,000, while men of the same age in 2004 had median incomes of about $35,000 (adjusted for inflation). On average, income of men is 12 percent lower today than income in their fathers’ generation. These recent U.S. Census data contradict the American Dream—that every generation will be better off than their parents. Instead, our current standards of living require multi-worker families. An increasing income gap between rich and poor tends to destabilizing society. These economic issues are serious enough to cause U.S. Federal Reserve chairperson Bernanke to issue a warning on the increasing social inequality.

    Prior to 1980, economic productivity and median family income grew at the same rate—meaning that government policies fairly shared the benefits of growth between the rich and the average Citizen. However, since 1980 the policies have constrained the average Citizen's benefit to about 25 percent while U.S. productivity gains were 80 percent. The trends have accelerated since 2000; income has dropped by about two percent while productivity gains have increased by about fifteen percent. (Economic Mobility) U.S. government policies now send the benefits of U.S. productivity gains to the wealthiest Citizens and Corporations, whose special interest groups and lobbyists have been very effective.

  7. Fails to Consider Critical Long-Term Issues

    Congressional planning is primarily concerned with short-term issues, often synchronized with political re-election cycles. However, we live in a time when massive changes are occurring over one or more decades. Such issues are often global and difficult to solve politically, though they will have profound affects for all Americans whose much-loved decedents may live perhaps 30 to 60 years into the future.

    Domestic examples are social security and health care, which periodically become political-spin issues of considerable obscurity without progress to long-term solution. Global examples are consumption in critical areas that already exceed stable resources and climate change that compounds the problems. Some examples are depletion of fresh water and fossil fuels, soil exhaustion, deforestation, and fish depletion. Globalization enables less developed countries to under-cut the U.S. in some areas. Long-term policy will have to respond either by proactive planning that can control some consequences or by last-minute reaction with potentially disastrous results. Four credible authors and a website of references present disturbing analyses:

    1. Diamond explains future scenarios by looking at the reasons for the historical collapses of civilizations,

    2. Homer-Dixon analyses the stresses causing changes and their effects on our society,

    3. Rees presents an evaluation of possible catastrophic changes, and

    4. Lomborg shows that solutions to some long-term problems are uneconomical and that some less obvious solutions can be effective,

    5. Heinberg explains the potential timing of the intersection between growing population and declining oil production, and

    6. A web site of general references is available on the Internet.

    These add weight to the critical need for long-term planning and for very tough decisions—the type of decisions that politicians cannot face because they will probably lose votes (not to mention their opportunities to isolate themselves from the problems by their wealth), but decisions that the people can make because they realize that not making them only causes the problems to get worse. Based on information in the above references, there are several "perfect storms" that will hit us hard in the next decade or two. For example:

    1. In the U.S., the "perfect collision" of:

      1. A growing elderly population, especially when the baby-boomers retire, have Social Security entitlements owed by the government but paid from current tax revenues.

      2. Rapidly increasing medical costs as life-extending medical technology improves.

      3. Declining finances as increasing deficits, national debt, and inevitable inflation take their toll.

    2. In the entire world, the "perfect collision" of:

      1. Oil production (Party's Over p90) is peaking or will peak in a few years time and decline thereafter.

      2. Personal expectations and growing income in developing countries (e.g., China and India, with over a third of the world's population) demand increasing per-capita consumption of everything.

      3. The majority of scientists now agree that global warming will disrupt economies, eventually changing food production and flooding highly populated costal areas.

      4. Global population is now 6.65 billion and growing (more slowly) at about 1.2% per annum. Many scholars believe that today's population is more than twice (Party's Over p30, Population) the long-term, steady-state level.

    With such problems looming over our future, now is not the time for our government to procrastinate or to squander our resources. The People need the right of an effective voice in these long-term policy issues and decisions. Viability of the economy is the corner stone of our prosperity. However, when short-term-profit motivated industries excessively influence our elected representatives, we cannot rely on Congress to make balanced decisions for critical long-term issues.

Dick Morris and Aileen McGann, in their 2007 book "Outrage", estimate that the total wastage cost is at least 369 billion dollars per year and climbing. This is consistent with the grand total of earlier estimates by the authors, most of which are discussed above.

Congress is Unable to Solve the Problems

Our nation can no longer afford the luxury of ignoring these huge Problems. Though we expect our elected representatives to heed our concerns, they cannot for the following reasons:

  1. A candidate's media image has become the primary factor in winning an election in this information age. Paid advertising consumes two-thirds of election funds. Only wealthy special interest groups have the discretionary money to fund political campaigns in today's political environment. Moreover, their members own the news media that profoundly influence the elections. Thus, without special interest support, the Congressional candidates who might be willing and able to solve the Problems almost inevitably lose their elections.

  2. No matter how much congresspersons may wish to serve the People, when the reward for attempting to correct the Problems is to lose their special interests support, and consequently their next election (including their congressional power and perquisites) it is no wonder that the Congress cannot solve the Problems.

  3. Moreover, neither the Executive nor the judicial branches of Government have any power to solve these congressional Problems—our present Constitutional system of checks and balances find the Problems intractable.

America has repeatedly been said to have the best political system in the world despite its imperfections—an ideal that congresspersons and wealthy special interest groups reiterate in the hope that the People will ignore current Problems. Since independence, America has outperformed all others for two centuries. During this period, some politically instigated waste has been inevitable. Nevertheless, it has never been great enough to undermine America's success.

However, convergence of unprecedented special interest influence and the astonishingly persuasive power of today's media technology have created a government by and for the special interests rather than by and for the People. Never before in U.S. history have the consequences for our nation been so great and so damaging. Our nation's and our children's futures are bleak if we take no action.




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Version 13.03
 November 07, 2013