Constitutional scholar and activist Lawrence Lessig, whose march through New Hampshire to get money out of politics is featured on our broadcast this week, often says that his crusade is the most urgent in America because it impacts virtually every other issue. From achieving tax reform to fighting climate change to strengthening the social safety net, we will see no progress until the wealthy entities that benefit can no longer buy up politicians to prevent the status quo from changing.
“The people who want to stop reform will pay an enormous amount of money to be able to achieve that,” Lessig told us when we met during his march. “…What this system has done is made the politics of dysfunction incredibly profitable.” Some lobbyists, he noted, even advertise their ability to exploit the system and use legislators to “delay and obstruct” progress in Congress.
“We will never get your issue solved until we fix this issue first,” Lessig said in a TED talk last year. “So it’s not that mine is the most important issue. It’s not. Yours is the most important issue, but mine is the first issue, the issue we have to solve before we get to fix the issues you care about.”
Here are five examples of issues beaten into stasis by a barrage of big money.
One example Lessig cites — one that motivates many progressives — is climate change.
“If you are a coal company who’s against the idea of climate change legislation, this [political system] is a boon for you,” he said, “because it’s trivial and cheap to be able to leverage your money, to guarantee nothing ever happens to adjust climate change.”
It’s a scenario America has seen play out time and again, most recently in 2009-10, when cap and trade, an idea that originated with the Reagan administration and had Republican support, seemed to have a real chance of working its way through Congress.
But in 2009, thousands of lobbyists representing energy and natural resource extraction companies spent more than they ever had before — over $400 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That record was broken the very next year, when spending reached $450 million.
Is it coincidental that in 2010, cap and trade was declared dead? In proposing climate change legislation that year, Sens. John Kerry (D-MA) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) refused to even discuss cap and trade as a realistic policy suggestion.
It wasn’t until last fall, when President Obama used an executive order to circumvent Congress and cap emissions from coal power plants, that the heaviest polluters faced across-the-board emission restrictions.
A similar story is unfolding right now with the Keystone XL pipeline, a massive project that, once operational, would pump more than 800,000 barrels of crude from Alberta’s tar sands to refineries on the US Gulf Coast — every day. It has become a defining issue for both the oil industry and environmental activists.
The pipeline’s approval is a decision over which a legacy-conscious Obama has vacillated for five years. Following a year of record spending by the American Petroleum Institute, the largest trade association for the oil and natural gas industry, and in the face of growing frustration from red state Democratic senators, earlier this month, the State Department released an environmental impact statement claiming that the project would have little impact on global climate emissions. That statement brought the project one step closer to approval, but the Obama administration cautioned that it was still weighing the pros and cons. A 30-day comment period has begun, during which environmental advocates will continue to encourage the administration to stand up to the oil industry, an outcry the oil industry can be expected to counter with another wave of money.
Tax reform is one key issue that especially inflames conservative activists. And as Lessig pointed out when we spoke, the problem of legislative paralysis knows no political alignment; it stumps would-be reformers on both the right and the left.
“It’s incredibly naïve to believe that this Congress will ever simplify the tax system, because the complexities in the tax system are fund-raising opportunities,” he told BillMoyers.com. “Every single special benefit is a reason and a target to raise more money.
“So the special Research & Development Tax Credit which Ronald Reagan created in 1981, and which was originally a temporary provision but has been temporary ever since, is temporary because each time it’s about to expire they have a long list of beneficiaries they can go to and say ‘Geez, we need to raise some money to support the idea of extending this temporary tax benefit.’”
In fact, as NPR reported, Congress annually rings in the New Year by letting dozens of tax breaks expire. There immediately follows a healthy round of campaign contributions, as lobbyists for a slew of industries — from overseas financial operators to rum retailers, from movie producers to racetrack operators — scramble to get those tax breaks reinstated.
The recent farm bill cut food stamps even further than the already severe cuts implemented in 2013. But it preserves a different sort of safety net: subsidies for big agriculture.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, in both 2008 and 2013, the two most recent years that the farm bill has come before Congress (it’s renewed every five years), agribusiness spent more than $145 million on lobbying.
Recipients of food stamps, of course, don’t have the same kind of lobbying muscle to advocate on their own behalf. In a Congress pushing austerity, the programs that help the poor continue to hit the chopping block while recipients of corporate welfare can afford a hearty defense to protect their benefits.
And even though subsidies were “reformed” this year, The New York Times reports that in practice, these reforms mean little.
“It’s a classic bait-and-switch proposal to protect farm subsidies,” Vincent H. Smith, an economist at Montana State University, told the Times. “They’ve eliminated the politically toxic direct payments program and added the money to a program that will provide farmers with even larger subsidies.”
The 2014 farm bill cuts direct payments to farmers, but puts that money into the farm insurance program. Writing in The New Republic, David Dayen explains why this helps big agriculture even more than previous farm bills:
That’s because the farm bill will expand subsidies for crop insurance, which looks like a private-sector program but which actually hands over virtually the same amount of taxpayer money to farmers, mostly wealthy ones, as the old direct payment program. What’s more, the shift from direct payments to crop insurance ensures that those handouts can be distributed in a hidden, more politically palatable way, making it more difficult to ever dislodge them.
The fight over raising the minimum wage is a war of information. Conservative opponents of a proposed increase commission academic studies for use by lobbyists and their front groups. A recent New York Times report illustrates how one of the most prominent think tanks opposing the raise, the Employment Policies Institute, “is run by a public relations firm that also represents the restaurant industry, as part of a tightly coordinated effort to defeat the minimum wage increase that the White House and Democrats in Congress have pushed for.”
Their strategy has proven effective, with business groups and the mainstream media continuing to cite research claiming that a raise in the minimum wage will hurt the economy.
Recently, the hotel industry, a major employer of low-wage workers, announced it will lead the fight to keep wages low. According to the congressional newspaper The Hill, the American Hotel and Lodging Association, a group that includes such major hotel chains as Best Western, Hilton and Hyatt, has plans to “lead the charge to beat back the growing emergence of extreme minimum and living wage initiatives that are proven job-killers and ultimately hurt those who are building successful careers from the entry level.”
Simultaneously, as money continues to pour into Congress to keep a low minimum wage at the federal level, proponents of increasing it are turning to the states and cities, where they are finding some limited success.
Last month, a federal appeals court struck down Net neutrality, the principle that Internet service providers cannot give favorable treatment to some content over others (e.g., Verizon could not give a faster connection to their own video streaming service than to Netflix).
Tom Wheeler, the new head of the FCC, has not settled on a permanent fix to settle Net neutrality, but says he will announce one soon.
One very easy way for the FCC to reinstate Net neutrality would be to reclassify the Internet under the Federal Communications Act as a telecommunications service, not an information service, giving the agency broader regulatory powers. But if the FCC does that, lobbyists representing Internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon, and their Republican allies, will put up a huge fight.
Meanwhile, congressional Democrats’ recent attempt to use legislation to preserve Net neutrality until the FCC has time to settle on a permanent fix looks likely to die in the House. It is strongly opposed by industry-backed Republicans. For one, Comcast is the second biggest campaign donor to Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR) — and he’s chairman of the communications and technology subcommittee. Instead, FCC Chairman Wheeler reportedly is leaning toward not reclassifying the Internet, but promising instead to take rigorous enforcement action against those Internet providers that attempt to use their considerable size and power to monopolize business or abuse consumers.
But Wheeler is a former lobbyist for the companies he’s now supposed to regulate. Add to that Comcast’s considerable lobbying clout and Washington connections, which soon may be magnified by its proposed merger with Time Warner. There’s reason for doubt that Wheeler’s plan would be effective.