What $1 Billion Can Buy

Punching in numbers on the calculator—that’s what the Center for Public Integrity’s been up to lately (in case you were wondering), and they’ve recently discovered that lobbyists and other special interest groups have spent nearly $1 billion in 2004 in statehouses around the country. Now that doesn’t sound like all that much, but it comes out to five lobbyists and $130,000 per legislator, influence that’s hard to resist. Certainly, then, legislatures ought to take CPI’s recommendations for “revolving door” and disclosure law changes seriously.

But all that money—can it ever be curbed? Probably not. Special interests will always be among us. On campaign finance, at least, I agree with the Heritage Foundation—there’s no way to limit the flow of money; it always finds a way. The 2004 election proved that, and recently-passed federal legislation, from the energy bill to the bankruptcy bill, proved that McCain-Feingold didn’t make Congress any less willing to jump in bed with big business. Meanwhile, publicly-financed campaigns, higher congressional salaries, and other ideas for limiting the demand for money may make “clean” elections a reality someday, but it seems very likely that no one will ever eradicate the horde of lobbyists hanging around state capitols and D.C., where the real action takes place. CPI’s proposed reforms, however nice, amount to one finger in a very leaky dike.

One to note, however, is that not all “special interests” should be painted with the same broad brush, as CPI tends to do. Corporations will try to buy influence—tax breaks, subsidies, loosened workplace restrictions—and labor unions will push right back and try to stop them. Both are “special interests,” yes, but it’s pretty clear that they’re not the same. Without hordes of lobbyists from groups like the AFL-CIO, or the NAACP, over the years, progressive change and liberal social reform in this country would have been much-diminished. So as useful as new restrictions on lobbying may be—at least to get much of this influence-peddling into the sunlight—I’m not sure that a government free of “special interests” would necessarily be a good thing.

One More Thing

And it's a big one. Mother Jones is launching a new Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on the corruption that is both the cause and result of the crisis in our democracy.

The more we thought about how Mother Jones can have the most impact right now, the more we realized that so many stories come down to corruption: People with wealth and power putting their interests first—and often getting away with it.

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We want to go all in, and we've got seed funding to get started—but we're looking to raise $500,000 in donations this spring so we can go even bigger. You can read about why we think this project is what the moment demands and what we hope to accomplish—and if you like how it sounds, please help us go big with a tax-deductible donation today.

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