We’ve been presenting Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s argument about “politics as organized combat” in their 2010 book, Winner-Take-All Politics, in our Tale of Two Depressions course.
Lee Drutman explains that, while the Citizens United decision opened the door for corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections (as a form of free speech), they’ve actually mostly declined the offer. Instead, they continue to spend their money the old-fashioned way: on corporate lobbying.
From 1998 onward, as far back as there is good data, corporations have consistently spent about 13 times more on lobbying than they have on campaign contributions. That’s not to say they don’t spend on campaigns. In the 2013-14 cycle, corporations, trade associations and business associations spent a combined $381 million through their political action committees. But that’s small potatoes compared with the giant $5.2 billion pot roast of reported corporate lobbying expenses over this period. And about half of lobbying doesn’t even get reported.
Lobbying offers a much better return than election spending because real power lies in influencing how policymakers think about the world, not in getting them elected. Lawmakers’ staffers, who are the key policymakers in most offices, are smart but young. They are often inexperienced and stretched far too thin, trying to understand many complicated subjects with limited time. Large corporations that hire many lobbyists can overwhelm offices by “helping” them make sense of the issues.
Staffers may know that the information is biased, but they just don’t have the time do additional homework. And besides, if there were another view out there, wouldn’t those advocates send in their lobbyists, too? On many issues, though, there is no other side — or at least no other side with anywhere near the same resources as big corporations. By my count, corporations and their associations spend $34 on lobbying for every $1 that labor unions and groups representing diffuse interests, such as citizens and consumers, spend combined. That ratio is up from 22 to 1 in 1998.