Like a terrifying demon that returns during the final scene of a horror movie, campaign-finance reform is the "thing" that never goes away. The U.S. Supreme Court sometimes saves the day, as it did with the First-Amendment-related Citizens United case in 2010. Yet reformers always have a new scheme to take "the money out of politics," even though their last schemes always resulted in more cash influencing political campaigns.
The campaign-finance scaremongers are baaaack with a symbolic bill that is a political poke-in-the-eye of the sleazy-seeming Trump administration. It could never pass the Senate or gain a presidential signature, but it makes a point. Now that they have a majority in the House, Democrats are pushing H.R. 1, which Vox describes as a "sweeping anti-corruption measures aimed at stamping out the influence of money in politics and expanding voting rights."
The voting-rights goal is doable because Congress has the power to loosen federal standards for voting. But only a delusional person would believe that lawmakers have the power to "stamp out" money in politics any more than they have the power to "stamp out" sexually transmitted diseases. Desire often outstrips good sense, which is why STDs and political spending are at record highs. People will work around any new hurdles placed in their way.
The problem—at least with political spending—is government, not rich people. Both political sides rail about the role of billionaires in our political system. The Left fulminates about the Koch Brothers and right-wing "dark money" groups, whereas the Right pounds the table about George Soros and left-leaning tech firms. However, a close look at lobbying spending in California offers some much-needed lessons on this hot-button topic.
The Sacramento Bee recently published an analysis of spending on government lobbying and found that it rose again last year. The total was $361 million, up 5 percent since 2017. It is far above the approximately $200 million spent on lobbying in 2002. One can easily conclude from these numbers—and from watching lobbyists swarm the Capitol—that something untoward is going on.
Nevertheless, those numbers need a little more perspective. The total 2017-2018 California state budget was $183.3 billion. Gov. Gavin Newsom's new budget proposal would spend $209.1 billion. In 2002-2003, the total state budget was $97.9 billion. Lobbying spending has gone up – but only in tandem with growth in state government spending. Lobbying dollars are small potatoes when you consider the total pie.
Sure, stories are legion about legislators who won't consider any proposal until they run it by the requisite lobbyist. Union leaders strut around the Capitol as if they own the place, because they pretty much do own the place. Lobbyists and trade groups of all type—unions, industry and activist groups—routinely write the language that becomes state law. Welcome to the real world. No finance reform can ever take the politics out of the political system.
Again, the problem is the size of government. Writing in National Review, Bradley Smith notes that Democratic lawmakers have proposed a Green New Deal "that would essentially abolish the aviation, auto, energy, and mining industries, among others. Why is it illegitimate for shareholders and employees in those industries to voice their opinions on regulatory schemes that would leave them bankrupt and unemployed?" Good question.
Take a closer look at that California lobbying report. The top spender was Pacific Gas & Electric, which is a regulated monopoly utility whose continued existence could be dependent on how the Legislature decides to handle wildfire-related liabilities. The Western States Petroleum Association, a trade group that represents highly regulated oil and gas businesses, is next on the list. Then there's another regulated utility, Edison International, and the California State Council of Service Employees, which is a powerful labor union.
Reality check: Those groups whose existence is most dependent on the government are going to spend oodles on lobbying that government. Look at the lobbying categories, per the Bee. The biggest spender is government—mainly local governments influencing state government. Next is healthcare, which is a government-dependent industry. Then come utilities, which are government-granted monopolies. Also high on the list are insurance companies, where government has power to set rates, as well as manufacturers, education and labor unions.
Finance reformers are frustrated by the courts, but there's that thing called the First Amendment. Spending is not speech per se. However, columnist George Will asked if The New York Times would be OK if it were free to write what it wanted, but if the government controlled "the amount it can spend on journalists, paper, ink, printing presses, delivery trucks, advertisements, and so on." You get the point.
Maybe we can all embrace a reform idea that would actually work: reducing the size and power of government. Sadly, that is the one idea that will frighten the kind of politicians and activists who support campaign-finance reform.
This column was first published in the Orange County Register.
Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. He was a Register editorial writer from 1998 – 2009. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.