Auctioning Off Power in Washington

Between the two party primaries and the general election, spending on the 2008 presidential race likely will exceed $1.5 billion (it topped $1 billion for the first time in 2004).

Toss in congressional elections, and it's likely that total spending for control of the federal government in 2008 will top $5 billion (it was just under $4 billion in 2004). That doesn't include state and local races, nor does it include the money spent on lobbying, which topped $2 billion in 2004, a 35 percent jump from 2001.

I tend to agree with many of the editorial boards and campaign reformers troubled by the escalation in the money we spend on federal elections. Unfortunately, campaign finance reformers (and lobbying reformers) seem to be troubled for all the wrong reasons.

The problem with increasing amounts of money spent on lobbying and politics isn't that Americans are spending more and more money to buy some influence in Washington; the problem is that we're giving Washington more and more influence to sell.

Nice as it may be to think otherwise, individuals, advocacy groups and corporations that give to political campaigns don't do so out of patriotism or civic pride. They donate because they hope to get something in return. It's not a gift, it's an investment.

That's true of the mega-corporation that spends money to lobby the way regulations are written, it's true of the real estate developer hoping to get an earmark for a bridge to the remote island where he owns land, and it's true of the ideologue who raises money for campaigns in the hopes of nudging the Congress one way or the other, for example, on the abortion issue.

This is where campaign finance reformers get it wrong. They think that with enough restrictions and regulations, with enough benevolent overseers and fair-minded enforcers, they can stifle the corrupting influences in Washington.

This is naïve. Corruption and power go hand in hand; or, as Lord Acton famously warned, power corrupts — and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The increasing amounts of money spent on Washington are a direct reflection of the increasing amounts of power we've given Washington to auction off.

The Washington Post's regulatory reporter Cindy Skrzycki opens her excellent book "The Regulators" with a telling anecdote about how competing interest groups fought and scrapped with federal bureaucrats over what the official circumference of the holes in a block of Swiss cheese ought be in order for it to be lawfully called "Swiss cheese."

There really is no area of our lives too mundane or trivial for action from Washington. When the addition, subtraction or alteration of a single word in a federal regulation can shift millions of dollars around the economy, or when a law like the Prescription Drug Benefit can sway billions, is it any wonder so many people are willing to spend so much money to get a government to their liking?

I agree with campaign finance reformers and lobbying reformers that all of this is unseemly. For one, it's obviously bad for democracy to have binding, one-size-fits-all national policy decided by which side has managed to throw the most money at the people making the decisions.

And, of course, all the money we throw at Washington is money that could be spent creating jobs, investing in research, innovating or, if you prefer, spent on charitable causes.

ABC News' John Stossel frequently points out in his speeches another troubling trend borne of all of this: The surge of lawyers in America.

Smart people coming out of college used to go to business school or directly into the corporate world. They used their smarts to create wealth. Today the preferred path is to go to law school, where they learn how to take wealth from other people.

Little wonder that over the last several years, lobbying is one of the fastest-growing industries in Washington. It's also of no coincidence that three of the richest counties in America are in the Washington, D.C. suburbs.

It's also rather sad.

That money is all flowing to the D.C. area by virtue of the enormous and growing influence of the federal government. It's parasitic wealth, not created wealth.

It's defense and homeland security contracts, a glut of high-paid federal workers and high-paid lobbyists sent to Washington to secure a slice of the pie for their clients.

Campaign finance reform, then, is the clichéd band-aid on the sucking chest wound. With so much at stake, money will always find its way to the people who wield the power — if not over the table, then under it.

Campaign finance reform also carries with it the curious characteristic of "solving" government corruption by giving the government more power to silence the people who are critical of it.

Spending limits also tend to favor incumbents, who have natural advantages over their challengers (which is why despite that the public generally loathes Congress, congressmen get re-elected at a clip of 90 to 95 percent).

You could make a good case that laws like McCain-Feingold actually encourage corruption in that they make it harder to unseat incumbents. Serving term after term after term with little danger of losing re-election tends to make politicians rather powerful and unaccountable. And more power coupled with less accountability makes them more corruptible.

The solution to the corruption in Washington, then, isn't more restrictions on political speech. It's to shrink the federal government. The government can't sell power and influence it doesn't have.

Take power out of the Beltway and the money interest groups spend to bid on it will go away, too. Better yet, all of that power and money will return to the private sector, where decisions are made in the interest of winning customers, not by regulatory fiat, and where choice, competition and merit allocate resources, not fallible bureaucrats and buyable congressmen.

Of course, "shrinking the government" is a tall order. It's easier to just pass another set of laws every 10 years with new restrictions on how we spend money on elections. Who cares if it works? It at least looks like we're doing something.

Here's a failsafe prediction for Election 2008: The people who complain the loudest about corruption among the politically powerful will be the same people who want to give more power to politicians.

Radley Balko is a senior editor with Reason magazine. He publishes the weblog,

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