How do we get money out of politics?
That question or something similar is one of the most common things we get asked. During the upcoming election, you will likely see and hear it lamented by political commentators from across the political spectrum. The typical answer involves passing another law or repealing one to make it illegal for people or corporations to spend money on political campaigns or donate to “dark-money” groups.
New laws or stricter regulations will inevitably fail, because asking “how” to get money out of politics ignores why money is spent on politics. And, the why is simple. Money is spent electing people and lobbying because it is profitable. Nowhere has that been more apparent than the granting of waivers to business closures during the COVID-shutdown. When a business’s ability to open its doors at all depends on the good-will of the Governor’s office, it makes perfect sense to spend money on lobbyists or hope that the money donated to a candidate at least gets someone to return your phone call.
Although many of the businesses impacted by the COVID business closures were small and family-owned, that example gives a crystal-clear view of the problem. However, it doesn’t stop there. A couple of weeks ago, the Speaker of the Ohio House of Representatives was arrested by federal authorities for his alleged role in a $60 million bribery scandal. The scandal traces back to a bailout of the nuclear power industry in Ohio. The bailout was valued at $1.1 billion; roughly $183 returned for every dollar spent. The Ohio scheme appears to be very clearly illegal, but that doesn’t diminish its value as an example. In fact, it makes it that much more powerful.
Major publicly traded companies were willing to break the law apparently. Should it come as a surprise that other companies and individuals are willing to work within the system to ensure that their project gets government funding? Or, permits? Or license, Or, that their competitor doesn’t? Companies spend $500 million per year to lobby the Pennsylvania government. Would businesses pay that kind of money if it weren’t profitable?
A recent article from SpotlightPA highlighted how some of these lobbying firms operate:
“Ray Zaborney’s rise in Pennsylvania politics has been fast and furious. Once a relative unknown, he has over the past decade become one of the go-to operatives for electing Republican candidates, as well as for influencing public policy. His reach has expanded into other states and national politics, with at least $11.6 million in business from federal PACs since 2011, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
“One of his marquee clients since 2015 in Pennsylvania is Corman, who is widely considered the heir apparent to ascend to the top Senate leadership position later this year when Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati retires.
“Zaborney’s business model, while successful, has sparked criticism that it blurs policy and politics. That is because one arm helps elect officials to the state legislature, while the other lobbies them once they are in office. His businesses are among only a handful in Harrisburg that do both campaign and lobbying work.” (Note: The entire article is worth your attention.)
Firm’s like Zaborney’s make money based on their connections to people in power, having one arm elect people while the other pleads to the legislature makes business sense. Because so much of the economy is under the government’s thumb, it is only natural for businesses to spend money to plead their case to elected officials.
Returning to the question of how can we get money out of politics, the simple answer is you cannot get the money out of politics, or even reduce it until the government is involved far less in the day-to-day activity of businesses, and government officials cannot shut down someone’s livelihood on a whim.