Jeb Bush didn't just release 33 years of his tax returns this week. He also had his campaign create a snappy online presentation, complete with graphs, to help everyone understand them. In the accompanying narrative there was one line that caught my eye. While he may have made millions after leaving the Florida governor's mansion, Jeb wrote, he didn't debase himself by doing any lobbying. "That was a line I drew and it was the right one. And it's a line more people should be drawing in Washington, D.C., where lobbying has become our nation's premier growth industry. And this culture of special interest access is a problem I plan to tackle as President."
I don't know about you, but I'm eager to hear more. How exactly will Bush tackle the culture of special interest access? Does he have some strict new rules in mind to lock the revolving door between government and business? Or will it be merely the power of his personal integrity that will keep those dastardly special interests from getting what they want?
Bush might surprise us, but if I had to guess I'd say this is something he'll pay lip service to during the campaign, but then do little or nothing about if he actually becomes president. He'd be following a well-worn path if he does — candidates always say they're going to change Washington's culture and reduce the power of special interests, but somehow they never do.
That's in large part because the institutions, norms, and relationships of Washington, D.C., are so firmly entrenched that one administration can't do too much about them. And whatever kind of reform a president might have in mind, it's always secondary to the policy goals any administration has, so it's easy to put it to the side in favor of more pressing issues.
While some might like to shut the doors of the Capitol to lobbyists, that's impossible — their work is protected by the First Amendment, which after mentioning freedom of religion, speech, the press, and assembly, says that we all have a right "to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." And though there's plenty of petitioning going on and plenty of grievances crying out for redress, there has actually been a slight decline in the number of registered lobbyists in recent years: While the number peaked at 14,829 in 2007, last year it fell to 11,800. The drop may be due to any number of reasons, but one lobbyist friend told me he was leaving the business because a divided government means there just aren't enough bills being passed to lobby about.
Even when they make a sincere effort, presidents have trouble transforming Washington culture. When Barack Obama took office, he announced that no registered lobbyists would be allowed to serve in his administration. That probably helps explain the reduction in registered lobbyists, since many Democrats hoped to get a job with the administration one day, but few people believe the rule has seriously diminished the influence of special interests. After all, the administration found over and over that people it wanted to hire had lobbyist pasts, so it kept making exceptions.
On the flip side, there are public-spirited people who claim they have been shut out by the administration for being the kind of registered lobbyists we would presumably want more of. We're talking about people who lobbied for causes like domestic violence prevention and environmental protection.
Which brings up the question: How special does an interest have to be before it's problematically special? When we hear that term, it's always said with disdain, assuming that somebody's getting something they don't deserve. In practice, though, we think of only the interests we don't like as the ones who shouldn't have influence.
You could look at it this way: You just need to pick the constellation of special interests you prefer, and vote accordingly. Would you rather that labor unions, environmental groups, and civil rights organizations had the ear of the government, or oil companies, anti-abortion groups, and the NRA? They're all special interest groups to one degree or another, even if they all believe that what's good for them is good for America. Chances are that if you dislike a politician for being beholden to special interests, what really turns you off is which interests she listens to.
Of course, that tells only part of the story. Some of the most effective special interest influence is exercised in ways that don't make headlines, on behalf of interests most people know little about, and much of that isn't partisan. For years before the financial crisis of 2008, the banking industry was acknowledged by many as the single most effective special interest lobby in Washington, in part because the congressional committees that had oversight of the industry were basically in the industry's pocket — and that applied to both Republicans and Democrats.
The truth is that special interests are always going to get what they want to at least some degree, because that's just the nature of special interests. When you have a particular interest in something — let's say you're a defense contractor who really wants the government to fund your new fighter plane — you're going to marshal all kinds of resources to make it happen. The rest of us may have a diffuse interest in the plane not being built, if it's a boondoggle. But we probably won't organize to fight it, and our voices won't be heard by those making the decision.
I'm not arguing for cynicism, or saying that every administration is equally steeped in the kind of legalized corruption that is endemic to Washington. But when a politician tells us he wants to get rid of the special interests, we ought to ask him which interests he has in mind, and exactly how he's going to go about it. Because chances are it's little more than posturing.