We’ve been trained to hate them. Of course, they’ve made it easy on us, oftentimes acting like a cross between a politician and a lawyer, two classes already generally disliked.
I’m talking about the lobbyists.
Typically, we don’t think much about them. Usually, only at election-time (can you believe “X politician” took money from that group), or when someone has made illegal campaign contributions.
But then, there’s right now. The National Rifle Association (NRA) is under attack for something neither it nor its members are responsible for. This assault is led by students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, the site of a mass shooting a few weeks ago.
I feel that minors deserve their privacy. Even though these students have publicly identified themselves, done interviews, and staged protests, I can’t confirm that they’re not minors without having to dig into their personal history, which is a definite invasion of privacy.
Consequently, I won’t be looking into any conflicts of interest or questions about credibility.
However, it is possible to evaluate their arguments based on excerpts of their speeches.
There’s one point they’ve beaten to death that really, really bothers me.
It’s essentially this: Marco Rubio, U.S. Senator from Florida, has taken $3.3 million from the NRA, and when that’s divided up by the approximately 3.1 million students in Florida, each life is given a value of $1.05. The subtext is that Rubio doesn’t care if kids die from gun violence, as long as the NRA keeps paying him.
Let’s leave aside for the moment that these slanderous comments essentially to partisan political assassination, and that since the students are minors or near-minors the NRA and Rubio cannot effectively defend themselves.
Snopes says that these numbers are, more or less, pretty accurate. Something that website did point out, however, is that around $1 million was given to Rubio directly and that more than double that, $2.3 million, was spent against his opponents. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that makes a significant moral difference, but what I am going to suggest is that it tells us something about the nature of lobbying that is being overlooked in this conversation.
Here’s an experiment.
Imagine it’s 2016. You, a responsible voter, have to choose between voting for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
But, let’s mix things up.
Say, for whatever reason, you want to make a campaign contribution to Trump large enough to get him to reverse his position on illegal immigration. How big would that have to be? One million dollars? Ten million? One billion?
Likewise, how much would you have to donate to Hillary Clinton in order to get her to come out publicly in support of repealing the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare)?
In both cases, it would have to be an obscenely high amount of money, as by flipping on these issues, the candidates would alienate their bases, i.e. the groups of people on which they have to spend the least amount of time and money in order to receive their vote. Running with an alienated base would be an uphill, perhaps insurmountable challenge.
In fact, no amount of money might be worth it in the eyes of Clinton and Trump. Alienating their base would cost them too much.
Which tells us something about the nature of campaign donations. You don’t donate to campaigns in some sort of quid pro quo agreement by which the candidate changes their mind in your favor in exchange for money. Instead, you donate money to a campaign because you agree with the stance that the candidate has already taken.
The NRA can’t create pro-2nd Amendment politicians, but it can donate to those to run in the hopes that it will help them win, and they can run attack ads against those who would restrict gun rights.
Consequently, it’s stilly to say that Rubio values lives relative to the amount of money given to him by the NRA. He held these views before he got money from the NRA. They wouldn’t have given it to him if he didn’t—remember that there’s likely no amount of money worth alienating your base, and if he flipped to anti-gun, he’d do just that.
That is to say, Rubio’s views are his own, and they happen to align with the NRA. In a similar manner, pro-abortion candidates receive money from Planned Parenthood. The publicly-declared belief precedes the contribution. This explains in a lot of ways why the NRA spent more money on people running against Rubio. Since the status quo appears to be mostly tenable for the organization, it has a bigger vested interest in preventing anti-gun candidates from getting elected than ensuring that pro-gun candidates do.
The way I see it, the relationship between politicians and lobbyists is, for the most part, one of convenient alliance. Both groups have needs that they can fulfill through each other. One group needs money in order to campaign successfully. The other wants to make sure people aligned with its vision get elected.
And, maybe, lobbyists have a function beyond just slinging money around.
Think about the politicians that represent your area. What are they knowledgeable in? Hopefully, your area and also the field in which they worked prior to becoming a politician. Which means they’re going to be really unprepared for many topics that are dealt with at the national level, such as healthcare, national defense, science and research, education, guns, infrastructure, and so on.
Lanny Davis writes that “lobbyists spend much of their time with members of Congress and their staffs providing factual and expert information about legislation that affects their clients.” Given that your representatives are not experts in everything, they are going to have to get their information from somewhere. And since there is no such thing as unbiased, objective policy, then we might as well assign that expert role to people who work in the field and have a deep knowledge of it.
Of course, the tradeoff is that they have a vested interest in the outcome of the policy decision. On the other hand, so does everyone. A ton of people wrote letters to their representatives about the repeal of net neutrality. People marched on Washington in support of gun control the other day. Lobbyists aren’t special in that they have a cause.
So, I guess what I’m trying to say is that lobbyists make for a useful scapegoat whenever something goes wrong, or when something we’re opposed to happens, but we have to understand their power in terms of support rather than in terms of influence.