That Revolving Door in Washington
If you were searching for proof positive that our politicians believe in the free market system, you need look no further than Tim Pawlenty, former governor of Minnesota and recent presidential candidate.
Mr. Pawlenty, like so many of his political predecessors, has landed firmly on his post-electoral feet with a nice lobbying job.
He has become the head of the Financial Services Roundtable, lobbyist organization of major banks and investment firms. His salary seems undiscoverable, but his predecessor, former Congressman (surprise!) Steve Bartlett, made $1.8 million in 2010, the most recent information available.
Pawlenty is a Republican, and will no doubt take considerable heat for teaming up with Wall Street fat cats. He has plenty of company from both sides of the aisle. Remember Chris Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, who last year became CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America for something more than $1 million annually?
I had intended next to list a few former congresspersons of both parties who are currently lobbying in some capacity. I discovered, however, that, according to Open Secrets, a watchdog organization, there are currently 372 of said congresspersons toiling away for six- and seven-figure wages.
This number does not include former staffers, bureaucrats, governors and whatnot, the total of which is beyond my research budget. Nevertheless, here are some names you may recognize: John Ashcroft, Evan Bayh, Tom Daschle, Blanche Lincoln, Fred Thompson, Dick Armey, Tom Delay, Tom Foley, Harold Ford, and of course, Newt.
It is difficult to identify these people, and even more difficult to discover their salaries. This should not surprise anyone. Lobbyists, all 35,000 of them, like to stay in the murky background of cocktail parties and ski trips, where their influence will be appreciated only by those accepting their money and legislative input, and by those paying them.
There are so many things not working in our system of government that it is hard to select one to become overwrought about. But if you look for a principal cause of many of our problems, the trail will lead to lobbyists.
They spread money across Washington, and state capitals too, as if it were mustard on a baloney sandwich, which seems like a pretty good metaphor. They write a good deal of what passes for legislation, then ride herd on it as it goes through the lawmaking processes they have lubricated with cash.
Lobbyists represent every imaginable constituency from unions to manufacturers to old folks to the Boy Scouts. There is even an American League of Lobbyists lobbying for itself.
We have arrived at this situation because the Founding Fathers somehow missed the Industrial Revolution, the country’s expansion to the Pacific, a population of more than 300 million, television, the Internet and professional politicians.
They wrote that pesky First Amendment that includes the rights to free speech and to petition the government, and they did not limit the terms of elective offices, for the perfectly logical reason that they viewed holding such offices as a duty, not as a path to riches.
When legislators are pressured with donations to their campaign chests to vote for some loophole or political favor, they do so, and when you buy enough votes to get these things passed, you get an incomprehensible tax code, and regulations and policies favoring interest groups at the expense of the economy.
Then, when our public servants tire of being on the receiving end of this game, with the inconvenience of campaigning and relatively low pay, they move to the passing side, where they can make a lot more money by handing out money.
I have no idea how to fix this. Nobody is going to rewrite the First Amendment, and term limits are not in sight. In principle, it seems a good thing for citizens to be in touch with their representatives; it just hasn’t worked out the way it was anticipated in 1787.
Would I accept a seven-figure salary to go to Washington and be somebody’s mouthpiece? I’d rather not answer that question. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, the opportunity is unlikely to arise.
Fred Wolferman lives in Southern Pines. Contact him by email at email@example.com.
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