To grasp the harms caused when money dominates politics, start with for-profit colleges. This industry tripled in size during the last decade, spurred by deceptive recruiting practices, after its lobbyists loosened federal rules aimed at protecting students and taxpayers from fraud. It has become a monster, a league of Wall Street corporations and private equity-owned firms that get 86 percent of their revenues -- $32 billion a year -- from taxpayers.
While some for-profit colleges are honest and work to educate their students, many charge sky-high prices, spend more on advertising than teaching, have high dropout rates, and leave students with worthless credits and insurmountable debt. For-profits now account for 10 percent of U.S. college students but almost half of student loan defaults. They risk a student loan crisis not unlike the subprime mortgage disaster.
Why does Washington tolerate such rampant misuse of taxpayer money? As Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), recently explained, reforms are blocked because for-profit colleges "own every lobbyist in town." Last year, the industry spent over $10 million on lobbying, and much more on public relations. They hire well-connected operators like former Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott, former House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt, and former Obama Communications Director Anita Dunn. The lobbying is backed with campaign contributions: In the current cycle, for-profit colleges have given $2.4 million to federal candidates. They've contributed over $500,000 to Mitt Romney or the pro-Romney Super PAC.
The House GOP votes almost unanimously to overturn efforts by the Obama administration to cut federal funding to predatory schools. They are joined by many House Democrats who, like Republicans, get donations from the for-profits. The for-profit colleges also buy support in the non-profit advocacy world, giving grants to cash-strapped organizations that then defend their wealthy patrons from attacks. And the for-profits help pay for education forums sponsored by mainstream journalism outlets -- another effort to buy influential friends.
In short, many of these businesses take taxpayer money, run shoddy operations that ruin students' lives, and then use some of that taxpayer money to pressure Washington to keep the money flowing, without restrictions.
For-profit colleges represent one of the most egregious abuses of our democracy, but the corruption of the system -- when special interests combine expensive lobbying operations with heavy campaign spending -- produces bad policy outcomes in numerous other areas, from energy to health care, banking to taxation.
There is a growing movement to reduce such harmful effects through bold structural reforms: revision of the campaign finance system; broader disclosure of contributions to and spending by candidates and organizations; stronger limits on the revolving door that moves lobbyists in and out of government; overturning the Citizens United decision and limiting the role of corporations in elections.
I strongly support these efforts, with the caveat that we should tread very carefully with measures that directly regulate speech about politics and public policy.
But citizens and institutions in our country should also dramatically ramp up efforts to use the money in politics angle to win specific issue fights and produce smarter, uncorrupted policy decisions.
First, there needs to be much more support for aggressive investigative journalism -- by traditional news outlets and innovative non-profits -- that exposes revolving door hires, connections between campaign donations and legislative votes, outright bribes, and other signs that conflicts of interest have led to policy results that hurt our citizens.
Second, people and organizations should do much more to take the facts revealed through such investigations and bring them to bear on the legislative and political process.
So often, when members of Congress vote, they know that their lobbyist benefactors are watching, and that taxpayers and people harmed by those interests will barely take notice.
We need to increase public outrage about how corruption of politics affects people's daily lives -- contaminated tap water, higher cell phone bills, egregious bank fees. We need to make corruption an ever-present theme that pushes our elected representatives to act in the public interest, despite all the money spent by special interests to influence them.
This should not be an ideological or partisan cause. Certainly, the progressive policy agenda would benefit greatly from reducing the power of special interests. But genuine grassroots conservatives -- beyond the Beltway establishment conservatives whose agenda is often purchased by corporate donations -- should also support policies that empower individuals, cut wasteful pork barrel spending, and emphasize small businesses and genuine free markets over crony capitalism.
When politicians who support tax breaks for big oil companies get campaign help from those companies, pro-environment groups and citizens should, on the eve of the next big vote, speak loudly to let those politicians know that people are watching and are ready to hold their representatives accountable.
When it's revealed that a top congressional aide received a $500,000 bonus from his defense contractor employer just before coming to Capitol Hill, constituents should demand that the congressman who hired that aide bend over backwards to be skeptical of the claims of that defense company the next time Congress faces a decision.
New Yorkers who think hydraulic fracturing by energy companies would create toxic water and air pollution should press Governor Andrew Cuomo not to be swayed by the millions of dollars the industry spends there on lobbying and campaign contributions.
And citizens should speak up at town hall meetings this fall and ask candidates whether they stand with wealthy for-profit colleges or whether they stand instead with the veterans, low-income people, and others in their community whose dreams have been crushed by these predatory schools.
David Halperin, a lawyer and policy analyst, writes at RepublicReport.org.
This post is part of the HuffPost Shadow Conventions 2012, a series spotlighting three issues that are not being discussed at the national GOP and Democratic conventions: The Drug War, Poverty in America, and Money in Politics.
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