Obama and the Special Interest Groups

Barack Obama has promised to shun the special interests and their bucket loads of cash. But the reality is, as with both parties, still the same. Influence peddling, or lobby groups doing their thing on the inside of political campaigns, is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. The difference may be that Obama has made this a frequent issue and openly runs on change in this area.

150pxdemocratslogosvgDelegates at this week’s Democratic National Convention are greeted with an AT&T goody bag, a key "sponsor" of the event. In fact this entire event is sponsored by industries like Pepsi, Coke, Molson Coors, Anheuser-Busch, Union Pacific, as well as SEIU and other labor unions. Even Pfiser, Abbott and AARP are sponsors, along with Motorola and Ford. Denver’s budget called for raising $40 million. The local mayor has said no taxpayer money will be used and it appears he will be right. Industries will sponsor the whole week.

Corporations are banned from directly spending money on candidates, for which we can be thankful, but conventions allow them the opportunity to spend to their heart’s content. The Denver host committee has a Web site which says: "As a corporate sponsor, you will be invited to exclusive forums and special events where you will interact with our local and national government as well as business leaders from around the country." For me the whole thing sounds like major "influence peddling" on a national scale. Government watchdog groups share my skepticism.

Look, this is good marketing for the companies. They want to get their products and ideas before those who directly influence the government. Simply put, they want relationships so they can influence decision making, and this convention allows them to gain those relationships legally.

But what about Senator Obama, who casts himself as an outsider who is no friend to the lobbyists? (This plays especially well in the Democratic Party, since it wants to foster their image as a national party that it is the only party that is truly for the people and now for the big industries!) The fact is that the executive committee in Denver is made up of several registered lobbyists. The same will also be true next week when the Republicans meet in Minneapolis, demonstrating that both parties are doing business as usual. The difference, once again, is that the Democrats have created a rhetoric of change, saying the Republicans are the party of big business and that they are not. 

Have you ever looked over what big business gives to these political parties and elections? Many if not most of them give to both sides. (You gotta’ cover your back side, right?) Some of them may give more to one party than to the other. There is enough criticism here to justly spread it around on both sides. We need to be honest about these simple facts.

And let’s be honest about this too: One of the positions that staunch conservatives most hate Senator McCain for was his campaign tax reform legislation, known simply as McCain-Feingold. Some even think this issue will lead to his defeat in November, since Obama will outspend him dramatically. I am of the opinion that the McCain-Feingold bill did help in some areas, but it did not change  nearly enough of this kind of "influence" politics. It was so watered down by process of Congressional compromise that it had too many loopholes. If you read the real story of McCain-Feingold you will see how much both parties deeply feared it and how widely the opposition to it really was. (When both parties fear something that will change the way they operate, then I begin to think it might have merit. I guess I am just a little too skeptical.) The simple fact is this—neither party wants to clean up their act on this issue of financing and campaign reform. In this case, "The more some things change the more they stay the same!"

This issue here is a genuine Catch-22. We want the freedom that is inherent in our political process, the freedom that allows citizens to give their money and the candidates to freely spend it. I think Obama is right to raise all the money he can and then spend it in order to seek victory. This is a free country. We have open elections and supporting candidates with our money is a time-honored freedom. But the limits put in place were intended to stop the extremely wealthy from determining political outcomes by the sheer force of their money. And the extremely wealthy are both Democrats and Republicans. Anyone who says otherwise is not paying attention. And the problem with lobbyists is that elected officials know very well who they are and what they gave to them. They are humans. This is why we call this "influence peddling." What else can we call it?

Make no mistake about this one fact. Both of the major candidates for president are connected to lobbyists and influence peddling. Take your poison. It was interesting, however, that Senator Obama was asked by Rick Warren about taking a tough stand against his own party and the one position he  cited was his support for the bill that McCain worked to promote; e.g. McCain-Feingold. Senator Obama presents himself as "the outsider" who will bring change, but he is not that different than any other candidate at this point. Both Obama and McCain should be honest enough to drop this one and promote other issues where their cause is more obvious and not so removed from the facts. Neither has a perfect record here at all, not even close. McCain, in contrast, did make a good faith effort in the Senate to change some things, but that effort may have ultimately been ineffective. If you were hoping that either party would break with the past on this issue you can forget it, at least for now.

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