Special Interest Money in Politics Hurts the Public Interest
None of the parties involved in political finance admit that special interest money ever buys votes or has any untoward effect on politics or the public interest. That is true for politicians, their staffs, government bureaucrats, lobbyists, special interests who hire lobbyists and most media outlets who benefit from campaign spending. It is true at the national and local levels. To everyone involved, practices surrounding campaign contributions and financing are pure, innocent and always in the public interest. But, is that assertion believable or not? To me it isn’t.
But if it is true, then what are the defenses for having money in politics. Why does special interest money need to be there at all? What public interest function does it serve? Why can’t lobbyists just call a politician or bureaucrat to discuss what it is they want without quietly putting money into a bank account somewhere? Recall the November 2010 election? It was full of groups backed by anonymous wealthy donors running endless attack and spin ads. Did the attacks and spin serve the public interest? If so, then why did the donors hide behind a veil of anonymity? Why weren’t they proud to openly strut their credentials?
I have looked, but cannot find a single solid argument that defends the role of special interest money in politics. I can’t even find a feeble argument. There are lots of arguments in defense of lobbyists having a role in politics and government, but none of the lobbyist defenses mention or defend the role of special interest money. Some, but not all, of the lobbyist defenses are persuasive that lobbyists need to be part of the mix, e.g., their activities are protected free speech or they have knowledge about their sponsor’s problems and needs that people in congress do not have.
How to solve the problem?
Under our current system of politics, special interest money simply cannot be removed from politics. The problem cannot be completely solved. If one believes that the money causes more harm than good, then what, if anything, can be done? The best partial solution may be to make politics more transparent.
That has been suggested by various groups. Since lobbyist-government contacts are public and not private business, these contacts should be made public to the extent it is reasonable. Of course, all the involved parties will fight that tooth and claw. They do not want the public to know how sleazy politics often is or how corrupting lobbyists backed by special interest money can be.
Net good or net bad?
Under circumstances where vast amounts of special interest money flows into politics but there is no obvious rationale for why it has to work in the public interest, what is one to conclude? Everyone admits that money is needed to get elected, but that does not necessarily confer any net benefit to the public interest.
Those things may or may not overlap in any given situation. Politicians usually put self-interest, i.e., election, reelection, gerrymandering, before the public interest, i.e., real political competition and transparency. In my opinion, that is a part of the failure of the two-party system.
If you accept my version of reality, it is easy to argue that the special interest money buys benefit for the special interest, including the incumbent politician, to the detriment of the public interest. Is that a credible, defensible opinion or not? Until persuasive counterarguments come along, I submit that it is.