The American Dream is the idea that anyone who works hard enough can have wealth and success here in the United States. A growing threat to that ideal is money in politics, with lobbying in particular at the forefront of the issue. In this essay we’ll be taking a look at the historical origins of lobbying in the U.S, it’s original purpose,what it’s become and how it can affect the american dream.
Lobbying has existed in the U.S since its founding. Although the term ‘lobbying’ would not be coined until the early 19th century, the concept itself was enshrined in an often overlooked passage of the first amendment, which allows the right “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances''. It was originally a way for businesses and other entities to convey their needs and concerns to the U.S government. Businesses would want to make sure that laws and regulations were passed that would help their business succeed. In its early days, it allowed people to ‘bridge the gap’ if you will between ordinary citizens and politicians. This was especially important back then, due to the lack of technological advancements we have now. It was also a smaller nation and handling those sorts of political interactions were much more manageable. Unfortunately, as time progresses and current settings/standards change, the concept of ‘lobbying’ has not aged well.
Although lobbying as a system has not aged well, major issues had already arisen as early as the 19th century, with the advent of trains and building the railroads across the United States. When the country was still young, much of it, the west in particular, was still very wild. Different railroad companies sprouted up around the country, with the intention of building tracks. A major reason for this was companies were able to have the projects funded through public subsidies, land grants and loans from the federal government. Of course, this was a big incentive. Due to this, lobbyists would work to petition and sway the U.S government for these loans which were ultimately funded by tax payers.
One of the many major problems this presented was different companies using different sized tracks, which would be unable to connect with other kinds. Also, almost the entire western U.S was wild at that point, with tracks and stations having no use but political ones. Around this time, a few lobbyists had realized that they only had so much ‘pull’ if they operated in Washington, D.C - So they found a way to drum up local support and organized publicity campaigns. The thing is, they were created just to push a false narrative, there was never any organic support or desire from the people. This tactic went on to become known as ‘astro-turfing’ and still occurs frequently in politics today. Ultimately, what this meant was that millions of tax-payer dollars were spent on mostly inefficient and unnecessary railroad projects, just for the loans and land grants companies would receive for taking these tasks on. Luckily, after the civil war, plenty of tracks were destroyed and they were able to ultimately reorganize and restructure them. It’s an interesting backdrop to the story of the rail-roads, as well as a good example of how lobbyists can work behind the scenes.
In modern times, lobbying still exists, although there have been some changes and regulations applied to help try and keep things balanced. But, as always, people inevitably find a way around these rules. The first major act introduced was the Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act of 1946. Now this applied to; “Any person who shall engage himself for pay or for any consideration for the purpose of attempting to influence the passage or defeat of any legislation by the Congress of the United States.” - Basically what this meant, was that if you were being paid to try and influence policies, now you have to register. It was at least a step in the right direction, people already had a growing concern. Nearly 50 years later, they would next pass the “Lobbying disclosure Act of 1995”. This added a few more details, such as stricter registration and more insight as to what exactly you were lobbying for. Although more regulations were put in place, it was still hardly foolproof.
For example; one would not legally be considered a lobbyist if they devoted less than 20% of their time for a particular client on lobbying activities. To cover up having to register legally as a lobbyist, people have gone as far as having medical programs, which clients would become a ‘member’ of. This is just one example of how one could hypothetically work around these rules. The reason the system is able to be exploited in ways like this, is because many lobbyists were politicians themselves. This is known as the “revolving door”, a term that’s used when someone leaves office and goes to work in the private sector. This is useful for companies, because the main asset a lobbyist provides isn’t money, but key knowledge on the subject, as well as contacts within the government itself.
So- if all of this is happening, why is it allowed in the first place? Well as pointed out earlier, the first amendment states that people have a right “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances''. Although it’s a bit of a stretch to sum up the entire situation to that phrase, that’s the constitution, that’s how it’s been, so rules are rules. There are some supposed positive benefits to lobbying, such as groups being able to make themselves formally heard. If people are organized, lobbying can give themselves a bigger voice in government, to help have a say in what policies they may believe in. It’s intended to be a way for people to ‘make themselves heard’ so to speak. That’s all fine and nice in theory, but in reality, it hardly seems to play out that way. With the political climate the way it is, the policy scene is already crowded and full of competitors, with each special interest group trying to push something. In order to ‘break through’ or try and get a foothold, you would need vast resources to compete, ie, a ton of money. Money that most average groups of people would just would not have access to. In my opinion, at this point, the original purpose is lost. The only groups that can ‘petition the Government for a redress of grievances’ these days are multi-million dollar corporations.
Another downside to all of this? Lobbying will not disappear anytime soon. Over the last twenty years, there was an 85% increase in spending for federal lobbying, with an increase in state lobbying as well. It seems to only increase as time goes on, as lobbying -is- an effective way of getting policy made/changed. It’s just nearly always business oriented policies as opposed to social policies, which usually does not have much benefit for the average person. This is another negative point- Lobbying almost always is in regards to corporate interests. In 2012, business entities spent roughly 2.5 billion lobbying congress, which was nearly twice as much as spending as all political organizations. To help put that into perspective, for every one dollar that was spent by public interest groups, 34 dollars was spent by business groups. Of the 100 highest spending lobbying organizations, 95 of them were business. As you can tell, the number of business groups affecting policy as opposed to public interest groups is extremely disproportionate.
The reason this ties in with the American Dream, is because lobbying effectively silences people in the political arena. All of these policies affect every single one of us on a daily basis. The federal money that gets allocated to all of these different companies, is our money, tax money made off of U.S citizens. It’s not instantly apparent, but a government that operates off money and favors in anything but name, from special interest groups, is just not conducive to a healthy economy or society at the end of the day.
So what can we do? The trickiest part is that lobbying has been a part of our system for so long now, it’s practically intrinsic. Maybe one day, stricter regulations and guidelines can be put into place to prevent these kinds of issues, although that would depend on enough policy makers to back it in the first place. The main problem seems to be that there are just too many loopholes to work through, it would be near impossible to make things foolproof. As long as money and people are involved there will most likely be some way to work around it. Still, though, that does not mean we shouldn’t attempt to alleviate the situation. The last lobbying reform act was over twenty years ago, we’re probably about due for a much stricter set of regulations, so at least the problem wouldn’t be so rampant. As society changes and more younger people take office, I like to think that maybe there really can be positive reform. If we can get lobbying and private money out of politics, we’ll be one step closer to a positive change. A real difference would have to start from the ‘top up’ so to speak. I feel like Lobbying reform would be a great start to fixing the many issues that reside within our government, thus making the American Dream that much more attainable for everyone.