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The Public Trough

Last year, over 15,000 individuals worked for organizations whose sole goal was to rip you off. No, not the mafia or Goldman Sachs, but another distinctly criminal class—Washington lobbyists. In 2008, corporations and unions spent over $3 billion to bribe officials who claim to work for you.

Because the federal government has so much power and money, it makes sense that private companies want to influence public policy: make friends with the bully and try to snag some stolen lunch money. But this metaphor is unfair. The bully is a lone individual without much control over the school as a whole. The federal government, by contrast, regulates nearly every aspect of the economy. It legislates healthcare, controls the money supply, sets fuel standards and minimum wage laws, tells us what milk to drink and how much water should fill our toilets. Naturally, then, companies want to make sure that big bad government doesn’t vote to restrict their business. They might also get some lunch money out of it.

Unsurprisingly, the areas where government has the most involvement are the areas with the most lobbyists. Healthcare crisis? Over $3.4 billion in the last ten years spent lobbying. Banking crisis? Over $3.5 billion. Energy crisis? Over $2.4 billion. Those lobbyist dollars are one reason such problems persist. Instead of voting to address a crisis, politicians vote to appease a select few insiders.

The public has caught on and demands change. But Congress rarely delivers solutions. Instead, it uses problems as pretexts for restricting our liberties and aggrandizing itself. In response to the demand for reform, the best our Congress could come up with was McCain-Feingold.

This dangerous piece of legislation is a blatant violation of the First Amendment. My anti-tax group is prohibited from purchasing ads criticizing a congressman within 60 days of an election. McCain-Feingold and the courts believe that paid speech by private citizens is somehow different from speech by the mainstream media. They refuse to acknowledge that a newspaper editorial is also paid speech, in that it costs money to produce and even has an equivalent price if a political party wants to buy the column inches. Yet the law treats the individual’s speech as somehow less worthy of protection.

For the political class, a convenient consequence of McCain-Feingold has been to insulate incumbents from being voted out of office. The law has earned a nickname as the Incumbent Protection Act. That individuals are forced to declare publicly how much they donate and to whom scares many people away from funding a challenger for fear of getting on the incumbent’s bad side.

The solution is not to place more restrictions on individuals and their organizations, but rather to go to the heart of the problem: Washington, D.C.

Congress should remove corruption while still honoring individual liberty. One way of doing this is by placing voluntary limits on corporations that are the recipients of government contracts. It is galling that companies can receive billion-dollar no-bid contracts, then turn around and spend millions on lobbyists, who immediately begin to plead, “Please, sir, can I have some more, sir?”

This vicious circle is socialism for the rich. Companies no longer compete on the free market but rather seek special privileges from their men in Congress. This is disastrous for America’s long-term stability. We became a great nation because we did not rely on welfare but rather worked, innovated, and produced.

What can be done? I propose mandating a clause in all federal contracts over $1 million that requires the recipient to pledge not to lobby government or contribute to campaigns during the terms of the contract. Companies that have willingly entered the public sphere by taking taxpayer funds should not be allowed to use part of that money to secure more funds.

But this proposal is only part of the answer. While it is important to cut down on the demand for lobbyists, the supply side is even more important. Washington, D.C. has a supply of money and power that it can dole out to the highest bidder. As long as this golden goose exists, people will find ways to take advantage of it. The problem is not the abuse of power, but rather the power to abuse.

The only answer to that problem is for Congress to reduce severely the size and scope of the federal government, so that the market is allowed to operate according to the free forces of a laissez-faire economy. Regulations, price controls, and political cronyism only distort the economy, foster corruption, and decrease our wealth as a nation. 


Rand Paul is an eye surgeon in Bowling Green, Kentucky. He is currently exploring a run for the U.S. Senate.

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