THE BLOG
07/11/2011 04:52 pm ET Updated Sep 10, 2011

Lobbying in American Politics

When did a politician's campaign cash reserves start to be called a "war chest?" It gives you a sense of what kind of attitude goes into how that money is being used.

Would you be upset if you found that there is a political lobby group outspending their competitors by a factor of 3:1? Does it matter that it is the National Rifle Association defending your Second Amendment right to bear arms? Would you feel the same if it were a group representing prison inmates and our Eighth Amendment to not be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment? How about our First Amendment?

From 2001 to 2007 the number of registered lobbyists grew from of 11,845 to 14,878 lobbyists, a 26 percent increase. Due to the economic recession, from 2007 to 2011 we went down from 14,878 to 10,458. A decrease of 30 percent. Don't think I am suggesting that this is because of who is in the White House; Dems take their fair share of money from lobbyists.

The current 10,458 equates to almost 20 registered lobbyists for each of the 535 members of Congress. That is a slightly distorted way to look at it, since not all lobby the U.S. Congress. Each lobbyist lobbies more than one member of Congress, too. But even if it is half or a quarter of that figure, it is still a barrage of special interest influence and money flowing to our politicians. And after members (or staffers) of Congress leave the House or Senate, it is not uncommon for some to become lobbyists, and for good reason: it can be a lucrative career move.

According to OpenSecrets.org (my source for these figures, and a place you can find out where your Senators or Representatives have taken money from) a "heavy hitter" is one of the wealthiest corporations and special interest groups that usually pepper politicians with overwhelming amounts of money in hope of influencing the political process. Consider that eight of the top 10 "heavy hitter" organizations (between 1989-2010 the top all-time donors) donated over 90 percent to Dems; the other two out of 10 were on the fence donating about equally to Dems and Repubs. These organizations include ActBlue, National Educational Association, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Laborers Union, and at number ten, the American Federation of Teachers. The Teamsters Union comes in at number 11.

But advocacy organizations and unions are different from industry. If we look at lobbying by industry/sector, Republicans are the front runner in defense; finance/insurance/real estate; and miscellaneous business. With differences in definitions, sectors and industries, it is hard to really calculate which political party takes more from lobbyists. Let's for the sake of argument say that Dems take more total money. Is this a bad thing? It might suggest that voter interests are being driven home to the politicians. It might also mean that the interests of a select few are marginalizing the majority.

The point: Both sides do it and there are always winners and losers under this system.

The biggest spender was the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Between 1998 and 2011 they spent $756 million lobbying congress. The American Medical Association was the runner up with $248 million. General Electric, which recently made news for its ability to avoid paying taxes, spent $246 million lobbying Congress.

Environmental lobbying isn't bad if you like a clean environment; organizations like the Sierra Club lobby members of Congress for a clean environment. But then we have an adversary of Sierra Club, Exxon, which spent about $12 million hiring 50 lobbyists who donated $1.2 million to members of Congress ($1.1 million to Repubs and $100,000 to Dems). Would it matter if Sierra spent more than Exxon, or if Exxon donated more to Dems? Would that make Sierra bad and Exxon good?

The amount of money involved in lobbying is independent of the rightness of the cause if you are a proponent of the cause, but it is intimately connected to the issue if you are an opponent of the cause.

Approximately $30 billion was spent in lobbying between 1998 and March of 2011. If you think this volume of money isn't buying influence, you're sorely mistaken. But here is the reality: You can't govern or represent if you don't win elections. And you can't win elections without money.

So long as there is money in politics, there will be lobbyists and special interests. And so long as people care more about their issue than they do other's issues, we will always have special interests and lobbyists.