What You Need To Know
The overwhelming influence of corporate America in politics is an insidious and tenacious challenge to our democratic processes. The vastness of Corporate America’s resources, power, and authority has created an unbalanced and unfair playing ground in government. It has remained unchallenged for decades and it continues to grow each day. On any given day, corporate political financing “drowns out the voices of average Americans”(Kennedy). According to a study conducted by Unheavenly Chorus in 2012, social welfare and labor organizations made up a meager 2 percent of all organized-interest activity, while corporations and business groups alone accounted for nearly half (Kennedy).
At present, the presence of business lobbying is bigger than ever. Lobbying expenditures are uncapped and funded directly by corporate treasuries (Hill) and consequently, corporations spend north of 2 billion dollars every year funding said costs (Drutman). It is apparent that since the mid-20th century, U.S. politics have been considerably biased in favor of Corporate American interests (Woll). While the corporate stake in politics had seen humble beginnings, it rapidly grew into a lobbying empire where there is only space for competition among themselves.
In recent years, new presidential administration federal agencies have become an open door for industries to increase their influence in Washington. Health insurance company lobbyists are now holding key posts in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Lobbyists fighting against working standards for the construction industry are now working for the U.S. The Department of Labor. Lobbyists working for the extractive resources industry are “currently being employed by the U.S. Department of Energy” (Kennedy). Large corporations are more embedded in our politics than ever before.
As a present-day problem, I have chosen to highlight the energy industry’s influence in climate change-related policy. Ever since the climate change discussion pointed an accusatory finger at the energy industry, large energy and notably oil corporations have used their power to curb climate change policy and initiatives. Their resources and lobbying power seem insurmountable and whatever solutions they tout, are modest compared to what research suggests is necessary and often are little more than attempts to divert blame away from themselves. More recently, big players in the energy industry such as ExxonMobil have started to ‘come around’ suggesting half-measures such as carbon taxes. However, behind the scenes, the oil industry underwrites anti-climate groups such as the American Petroleum Institute, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the National Association of Manufacturers with annual contributions of tens of millions of dollars (Hirono), in essence betraying their public stances in order to maintain the status quo. While ExxonMobil believes that a carbon tax is the best way to address rising sea levels and global temperatures, “it has done little to actively advocate for that goal in recent years”(Harder).
The problem of corporate influence in American politics can be traced back to the infamous Gilded Age. In this period, the lobbying industry was modest compared to the overwhelming industry it is today. One cannot talk about lobbying without making note of the rapidly growing overall presence of industry in politics, both legal and illegal. Even early into the 20th century, in the midst of the progressive era, the U.S. started to see an increase of company influence in politics.
By the late 1930s, the lobbying industry had become a well-oiled machine. The now professional lobbyists were much better than regular representatives at petitioning the government because they represented corporate interests and well-connected organizations with many resources and ties to elected politicians(Holman). While at the time there were many superficial efforts claiming to address the clear imbalance of political representation in congress such as the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938 and Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act of 1946, “The Acts did not attempt to regulate the conduct of lobbying or the financial activity of lobbyists”(Holman).
In January of 2010, Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission (FEC), a pivotal court case, changed the course of industry involvement in politics. Prior to Citizens United, corporations, and unions were “equally constrained in their ability to finance federal election campaigns”(Hasen). The resulting court decision released unions and corporations from existing campaign finance restrictions around the financing of political campaigns (Hasen). While it did afford these rights to all interest groups, competing federal laws still restricted political expenditures by unions. This unfair playing ground between corporations and unions further increased an already present gap in spending power. Labor unions and other groups representing broad constituencies like consumers or taxpayers “now spend $1 for every $34 business spent on lobbying”(Drutman). The effect is that organizations that represent large numbers of Americans are comparatively disenfranchised relative to business interests.
One effort aimed to address the countervailing influence of corporations in politics, primarily lobbying, was the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, which took effect in 2008. Washington had just recovered from a humiliating lobbying scandal involving “super lobbyist” Jack Abramoff, exposing the seedy underbelly of D.C.’s dishonest and corrupt lobbying culture. Despite its name and best intentions, the act somewhat backfired on Congress, failing to stop the revolving door of corporate influence. While it did strengthen public disclosure of lobbying activities, it did little to actually discourage or stop the flow of business interest groups in Washington. In fact, it did so little to discourage such activity that of the Congress members who left office since the law in 2008, nearly half of them (47%) have joined the influence industry as lobbyists or political advisors of some sort (Arnsdorf). Another more recent initiative aimed towards wealthy corporations and corrupt politics was the For the People Act. It provided tangible solutions for the game-changing funding of special interests in campaigns and partisan gerrymandering, the manipulation of electoral maps (Kromm). The act planned to address these issues by replacing partisan gerrymandering with “independent commissions responsible for redistricting”(Simon). It would create transparency policies and ethics rules like the mandatory release of tax returns, and it would tighten regulations on super PACs in order to shift political power away from large corporations and towards everyday Americans who are smaller donors (Kromm). However, the bill was criticized for “omit[ting] any reform that would adversely impact the Democratic Party”(Simon), so it never made it past the Republican Party dominated Senate.
Some ways that the country can address corporate influence in politics is by creating fundamental change in lobbying and campaign finance policy. To successfully separate big business influence and its money from Washingtonian politics, a first step would be to create stricter legislation limiting the amount of money allowed to be contributed to political campaigns as well as requiring candidates to be transparent with their campaign finance (Sanders). By reversing the ruling on the Citizens United court case, we would be able to create a more level playing ground for candidates creating a more proportional representation by voters relative to corporations. Further, in order to invoke change, we must create stricter regulations dealing with the relationships between lobbyists and members of congress. After they leave politics, it isn’t uncommon for politicians to get involved in the influence industry either working as lobbyists or political advisors for corporations. One step would be to set a minimum number of years a member of congress must wait before entering the influence industry. A step further would be to prohibit members of congress from being professionally involved with interest groups with whom they worked in their time in Congress. Both of these would eliminate the transactional aspects of politics such as storing favors that make corporate influence so dangerous to the integrity of our democracy. In addition, the institution of term limits for both representatives and senators has been a long-standing debate for those involved in politics. Limiting terms would create a political atmosphere conducive to change and policy rather than a career-long struggle for reelection. Doing this would make members of congress less inclined to take part in transactional relationships with corporations in order to receive funding for future campaigns.
How Will You Get Involved?
To curb the general problem of corporate influence in politics there are many action steps each of us and our country can take. On a micro level in one’s community, one can get involved in groups advocating for these issues and political campaigns pushing to end big business influence in politics. Both Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have been consistent advocates of the separation of Corporate America and politics. A way you can get involved with their message and campaigns is by volunteering or making calls to spread their ideas to people across the country. If reelected to the Senate, they can continue to fight and bring up this issue.
Additionally, some action steps that you can personally take would be to get involved with the Sunrise Movement, an organization aimed at addressing climate change through activism and generating policy; an example being the famous Green New Deal put forward by Rep Ocasio Cortez. You can volunteer by:
- joining a texting team
- joining a hub: group tasked with most of the logistical volunteer work in the organization.
All of these solutions are effective because they are aggressive enough to create viable ways to separate corporations from U.S. politics while simultaneously addressing what I consider to be the most imminent and threatening problem of our era in a meaningful way through political action.
Whether at the grass root or national level, action is needed to rebalance the playing field that has threatened our democratic institutions and disenfranchised our citizens. On the climate change front, cutting the financial stranglehold of the fossil fuel industry on legislation could invoke real change and an improvement in all facets of American life.
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Now that you’ve read my research, I am eager to hear what you guys thought! Please use the comment forum below to provide me with some constructive feedback.
You can let me know what you think by answering these questions:
- After reading this, has your perspective on political representation in the United States changed?
- How do you see yourself getting involved to make the current situation better?