The enduring popularity of Fox News and The Huffington Post notwithstanding, audiences are profoundly uncomfortable with accusations of bias, or the idea that somebody somewhere is earning a paycheck through (dishonest) persuasion. Nothing shuts down a debate faster than the word “shill.” Typically thrown out as a pejorative, it automatically deflates any argument from an opponent, even those that are factual or reasonable. Having dabbled in several non-governmental roles throughout my career, I’ve come to learn a few things about the nebulous profession known as “government affairs”/shillery that aren’t immediately obvious to people who reside outside of the DC bubble (and many who reside within it, too).
Lobbyists, PR flacks, coalition-builders, policy analysts, think tank scholars, and journalists writing for ideological publications really do understand their issues, and generally support the causes they work to advance. Any think tank policy wonk will tell you that if they sold their conscience to advance the interests of some corporate board somewhere, they set far too low of a selling price. I’ve never met anybody who works against his or her conscience or beliefs, or who just publishes articles and papers that simply support the donors’ goals, evidence or ethics be damned. Rather, if you’re an effective advocate with expert knowledge on your subject, then you’re compensated for it.
“Cronyism” is rampant because DC is little more than a dense, exclusive, professional network. It looks bad to the rest of the country if some 1-percenter’s kid gets appointed to a prestigious, high-level administration job, especially considering all the pro-democracy rhetoric our political leaders espouse. Rightly or wrongly, most of the business of government has zip to do with democratic elections, and usually that “kid” has been working on the issue for a couple of decades or longer and is widely known around town. Cronyism sucks, but nobody has time to lead a nationwide search for every single appointee position or contract.
Lobbyists cannot make lawmakers do whatever they want them to do. You cannot send somebody into Senator X’s office with a check from the company’s Political Action Committee and a list of demands. You must figure out which lawmakers might be receptive to you, find one or two on a relevant committee who are in the best position to have an impact, and hope for the best. It’s a sales job involving other people’s money. There’s no guarantee you get what you want, and there’s certainly no writing a check in exchange for the policies you want enacted – if you could do that, America wouldn’t have a corporate tax and the federal minimum wage would be $20/hour.
Bureaucracy and inertia are universal truths of large legal entities, both public and private. Libertarians and progressives frequently disagree on the real danger to society. For progressives, Big Business plays the legislative and regulatory processes to its favor, threatening to undermine modern democracy. For libertarians, corporations are like large, efficiency-seeking organisms that are constantly under the boot of Big Government. In reality, both are slow, lumbering giants that are fraught with infighting and poor cross-channel communications. The private sector absolutely could have produced the nightmarish Healthcare.gov – the only difference is you wouldn’t have heard of it, because they would have pulled the project and fired people immediately.
Money is a problem, but not in the way you think. Donations to campaigns or nonprofits don’t grant the check-writer nearly the kind of influence or control that critics assume. Yet this is clearly an enormous waste of money. Many companies and industries have huge DC operations budgets when you add up lobbying expenses, PAC donations, grants to think tanks and advocacy groups, and the economy-wide slush fund that keeps everybody in the government industry affluent, or at least comfortable. Imagine if they instead put their money back into their businesses, hired more workers, or reinvested in R&D. DC sucks perfectly good money out of the economy, and not just through taxes.
None of this should be taken as a defense of the system. I’m simply explaining how it is. Yes, there is a lot of cronyism and money in politics. Too much for most peoples’ comfort. But it isn’t some inherent evil lurking within every bureaucrat driving it (how many IRS agents even own a gun?). It’s largely a systemic problem that’s not going to get better with the election of the right president, or a fiscally conservative House. One big conundrum facing libertarian-leaning types is whether it’s worth participating in a bloated, broken system in hopes of slowly fixing it from within, or if it’s better to watch it implode (and possibly take us with it). I wish I had an answer.