Over the past few months, the Keystone XL pipeline project has verified long-standing beliefs that oil industry campaign cash drives Republican energy policy as well as their obstruction of renewable and green energy sources. The more one discovers the amount of influence the oil industry exerts on members of Congress, the more important campaign finance reform becomes necessary to shift power back to the people. There is a school of thought that says there should never be special interests or lobbyists involved in legislator’s decision making and in a perfect political environment, they would be correct; but in politics, like life, there is no such thing as perfect.
It seems that every instance of reporting Republican malfeasance in creating and voting for favorable oil legislation, there is finger-pointing at Democrats and accusations that “they take oil money too.” It is a valid point, but hardly the end of the story and it brings up two questions whose answers may clarify why taking special interest money or advice from lobbyists is not the same as selling votes or lying to curry support for, or creating, legislation to enrich one specific interest. First, are lobbyists and special interests necessary, and second, does taking donations from lobbies and special interests mean a politician is corrupt?
There are good reasons special interest groups and lobbyists are necessary for legislators to make good decisions for their constituents and indeed the entire country. Let’s say a congressman from rural Kansas is asked to support a bill that addressed funding to provide special needs students with extra help to guarantee they succeeded in inner-city schools. Because the legislator had never set foot in an inner-city school, or was clueless what a special needs student meant, they would need an expert’s opinion to make an informed decision. In fact, they would need to hear from experts on both sides of the issue to be objective. It would be the same if a bill on nursing safety in the healthcare industry came up for a vote. A legislator would need to understand the needs of nurses, patients, and hospitals to make an informed decision. But, should the special interest expect a legislator to vote according to the amount of campaign cash they handed out? No, but that is not the case with Republicans.
The answer to the question; does taking special interest or lobbyist’s money necessarily mean a legislator is corrupt is definitively no. The Keystone pipeline example makes it clear that there is a marked difference between Republicans and Democrats who accept big oil money. It is true that nearly all legislators receive oil money, but Republicans certainly receive substantially more than Democrats and perhaps that affects their support for legislation that only benefits big oil. In the Keystone pipeline example, only Republican leaders are deliberately spreading lies and misinformation about the pipeline’s benefits to enrich the oil industry. It is the same with campaign cash from Wall Street and banking industry; both parties rake in huge amounts of cash, but only one side obstructed legislation to hold banks and Wall Street accountable by lying about the detriments of consumer protection laws. In fact, Democrats who took Wall Street money passed banking reforms to protect consumers and prevent a repeat of the 2008 financial meltdown and Republicans are still promising to repeal the Dodd-Frank if they win both houses of Congress and the White House in 2012 to protect Wall Street. There are myriad examples of special interest money polluting the legislative process and it intones a different meaning to “follow the money” than it appears. It is more apropos to say, “follow the rhetoric, misinformation, and voting record” after following the money.
It is important to know how much money, for example, the oil industry hands out to Republicans because they consistently vote in favor of legislation that rewards big oil. In the Keystone pipeline case, it is the Republican leadership that is spreading lies that building the pipeline will reduce fuel costs and our dependency on Mideast oil, or that its construction will create hundreds-of-thousands of new jobs. There are Democrats who support the ill-advised project, but they are not in front of cameras telling Americans lies about the pipeline.
There are very few, if any, legislators who do not take special interest money, or advice from lobbyists on any number of issues. It is a fact of life and a necessary part of informed decision-making. However, as in the Keystone case, Republicans are not even listening to the company’s own reporting that fuel costs will increase, supplies will decrease, and refined tar sands crude will sell on the foreign market because there is personal profit for many Republicans as well as the companies selling the oil to China, Europe, and South America.
The solution to special interest and lobbyist interference in Congress is comprehensive finance reform. What that might entail is limits on contributions and restrictions on lobbyists prohibiting them from writing legislation. Whatever campaign finance reform looks like, it cannot be written by the Heritage Foundation that provides Republicans with most of their legislation; it must be truly bipartisan. Responsible and comprehensive reforms must be free of any special interest or lobby and should reflect the interest of democracy. That said, since the interest of democracy is the antithesis of conservatism, any hope of bipartisanship in campaign finance reform is a fantasy that means America will continue being governed by special interests.