Monday, February 15, 2010

Our Corporate Overlords

I still haven't written much about Citizens United, and I still intend to, but on the empirical side I did want to note that the Monkey Cage has been linking to research that indicates that, as a practical matter, it's not likely to make much of a difference.  See here (and follow the links in that one) and here

This is pretty much what I would expect, as I said here, and, before that, as Seth Masket said.  I think there's a narrow logic, and a broader logic, and they are both correct.  The narrow logic says that campaign finance laws are generally going to be at least one step behind the contributors; as Seth said:
But does anyone seriously believe that such laws have prevented Monsanto, Citigroup, or Exxon from getting money into the hands of political candidates?  There have always been ways around these regulations.  Corporate leaders can "encourage" their employees to donate to preferred candidates.  And when wealthy people run up against an individual donation limit, they can always donate to a 527, a PAC, or some other independent organization set up by campaigns and parties.  Beyond that, these laws have only been trivially enforced and the penalties for violating them are miniscule.
And that's only campaign contributions.  There is also lobbying money, and quasi-lobbying money, as seen in the Congressional Black Caucus story in the Sunday NYT. 

The larger logic, however, says that of course large corporate interests are going to have influence in the American political system -- all large interests have, and should have, influence within the American political system.  Of course the Senators from Arkansas are going to care about Walmart; that's what Senators do.  It's not surprising, either, that large, easily visible interests are going to be, shall we say, well represented.  That's going to happen regardless of campaign financing, regardless of lobbying, regardless of anything beyond being a large, visible, interest with clearly identifiable preferences.  Of course, elections matter to all of that -- not every Senator from Arkansas is going to be equally overresponsive to Walmart -- but that's the nature of representation, just as representatives from some districts are going to be especially responsive to the concerns of Latinos and those from other districts are going to be especially responsive to the concerns of veterans. That's not to say that money never buys influence, but only that based on that larger logic it's not surprising that such direct lines tend to be very difficult to find, and probably matter only in particular circumstances (such as very low visibility issues in which a specific interest group is not opposed by another specific, narrow interest group). 

Again, all of this is basically just the lay of the land when it comes to campaign finance.  It helps, however, to know the lay of the land before trying to figure out how changes will affect the various players.


  1. Well, once you start using value-related terms like "should" -- that is, "large corporate interests should have influence" -- you open the discussion up to a much wider range of value questions.

    Take, for instance, health insurance companies. There is a point of view which many share: health insurance companies contribute nothing of value to the health care system, and much that is pernicious. Therefore they should not even exist, much less have the kind of influence they now have, through campaign contributions and many other avenues.

    The same, one could argue, is true of many other large corporations. The answer, I believe, is not to deny them their "free speech," but to organize effective opposition to them. The problem today is that such organized opposition, a kind of Left that could be called "democratic socialism," doesn't exist, and it is very hard to see any practical way of organizing it right now. (If there were such a way, we would have that Left already.) As long as it doesn't exist, the big corporations will pretty much govern the country, one way or another.

  2. I agree entirely that "the answer organize effective opposition" to those interests which one doesn't like.

    And, in fact, that sort of thing happens all the time, and works...just not as much as some might like. It's not true that big corporations get whatever they want; they lose battles all the time, sometimes to other big corporations (because business is not monolithic at all) and sometimes to consumers or to labor.

    And businesses tend to fight harder depending on what's at stake for them. So if what's at stake is existence (as it is for health insurance companies against the sort of policies that JonJ wants), then they fight pretty hard. And those Members of Congress who have insurance company headquarters in their districts are going to be reluctant to cost constituents their jobs, and local & state governments their tax bases, even if the insurance companies did nothing at all. If the insurance companies have less at stake (as they do in Obama's version of reform -- they do get hit in many ways by it, but also benefit in some ways), then they'll fight less hard, and they're a lot more easily beatable.

    That's not an argument for agreeing with the insurance companies...I'm just saying that there are good reasons for Members of Congress to represent their interests, regardless of campaign finance laws or lobbyists. The trick, if you want to win such fights, is to mobilize those Members whose constituents are worse off because of insurance company success.

    (And as I've said, if Congress does wind up passing reform this year, I think the prospects for a strong public option are pretty good in the not-far future.

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