How Do We Get American Politics Back on Track?

by Scott London

A healthy skepticism of government is built into the American character. But public attitudes have gone beyond mere skepticism in recent years. Surveys show that disaffection with government is at or near an all-time high. Many people have abandoned their faith in our elected leadership.

Some of the public’s frustration can be attributed to economic anxiety and uncertainty about the future. But it also reflects deep concerns about the forces shaping American politics—from partisan rancor and congressional gridlock to the high cost of political campaigns and the growing influence of special interest groups.

Any one of these problems taken in isolation would represent a serious challenge to our democratic process. But taken together, they make it almost impossible for government to address the nation’s most pressing issues.

In a new issue book, just published by the National Issues Forums, I write about how deadlock and dysfunction have become the new norm in American politics. I also explore a number of options for addressing the problems and getting the system back on track. The issue guide is part of a series of publications used to promote serious discussion in communities and on campuses across the country. Here’s an excerpt:

Art from 'Political Fix,' an issue guide for the National Issues ForumsToday Washington D.C. is home to a growing special-interest and lobbying industry, one that employs as many as 100,000 people, making it the third largest sector in the American capital after government and tourism.

The health care industry alone employs six lobbyists for every elected politician in Washington. On key issues like energy, defense and education, they exert an influence that is difficult to measure but undeniable.

Lobbyists advocate on behalf of organizations and constituencies, attempting to influence lawmakers and shape policies to suit their own interests. “The Catholic Church has lobbyists,” says American University professor James Thurber. “The Boy Scouts have lobbyists. The AFL-CIO has lobbyists. Apple does. Everybody has a lobbyist.”

Because lobbying firms represent special interests—those of the few rather than those of the many—their efforts tend to distort legislative priorities, sow contention and conflict, and compromise the government’s responsiveness to the public good.

As the number of lobbyists has grown, so has the influence of big money. With the soaring cost of political campaigns, lawmakers have to spend much of their time fundraising. Studies show that a typical senator working 40 hours a week would need to raise about $2,400 per hour to finance the cost of a re-election campaign.

Lobbyists and special interest groups have often proven willing, even eager, to contribute. But they expect a return on that investment in the form of access. That could mean personal invitations to parties, functions, or even meetings with legislators.

An analysis by Mike McIntire and Michael Luo of the New York Times found that most of the major contributors to Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, especially those who gave $100,000 or more, were later invited to the White House to meet the president.

Of course, the Obama administration, like those before it, deny that there is a link between contributions and access to the White House. But the facts suggest a different story. Many of President George W. Bush’s biggest campaign contributors won ambassadorships or other special favors, and President Clinton famously invited big donors to sleep over in the Lincoln Bedroom, a guest suite on the second floor of the White House.

Cases of outright corruption are rare, but it’s well known that lobbying firms working on behalf of wealthy clients routinely gain access to politicians, lavish them with gifts and special benefits, and then sway them to make minor changes to legislation or offer tax breaks favorable to their clients.

Jack Abramoff, once one of Washington’s highest-paid lobbyists, was convicted in 2006 for fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials. After four years in prison, he wrote a book, Capital Punishment: The Hard Truth About Corruption From America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist, detailing how lobbyists go about buying powerful friends and influencing legislation.

“I think people are under the impression that the corruption only involves somebody handing over a check and getting a favor, and that’s not the case,” Abramoff told 60 Minutes. In fact, members of Congress regularly accept gifts from influence-peddlers in what amounts to a form of legalized bribery. “It was done everyday,” he said, “and it’s still being done.”

The influence of money is nothing new in American politics. But not since the Gilded Age in the late 19th century has our political system been so inundated by corporate contributions and funding from secret sources. And the new era of big money has just begun.

The contributions that poured into the 2012 election—close to $3 billion, by some estimates—came largely as a result of a U.S. Supreme Court decision in the case Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

In January 2010, a bitterly divided Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to limit spending by corporations or other entities in candidate elections, because such limits violate the First Amendment guarantee of free speech.

A subsequent court ruling helped to create “super PACs,” a new kind of political action committee that can collect money from individuals, corporations, and other groups to support or defeat political candidates.

Super PACs act in much the same way as political campaigns do, running ads, making calls, and sending out mailings. But unlike conventional campaigns, there is no limit on the amounts of money they can raise and spend.

Super PACs are required to disclose the sources of their contributions. But that doesn’t stop them from accepting donations from outside groups with secret donors. As a result, many well-heeled super PACs buy campaign ads with “dark money”—funds that can’t be traced to their original source.

The 2012 election cycle was shaped to an unprecedented degree by campaign ads created and paid for by super PACs. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, close to $1 billion was spent by outside groups trying to influence races around the country—a full 25 percent of which was dark money.

This means that corporations and other moneyed interests can now spend unlimited amounts of money supporting candidates aligned with their agendas and opposing those who don’t, all the while hiding their identity behind front groups.

Wealthy individuals and organizations may not be able to buy a politician or dictate the outcomes they want, but they influence the electoral landscape like never before. “If we don’t find some way to respond to this,” says former Ohio governor Ted Strickland, “it’s going to turn us into a plutocracy, where a very few powerful people control the public agenda.”

Many Americans insist that we must curb the influence of special interests and restrict the flow of big money into government to ensure that the good of the few never takes precedence over the good of the many. But there are some drawbacks to consider. As the Supreme Court made clear in its controversial Citizens United ruling, restricting the ability of corporations, unions and other groups to broadcast political messages or otherwise participate in the marketplace of ideas can be interpreted as a form of censorship.

The question is to what extent we are willing to curb the rights of a few in order to protect the common good.