What would I do if I were in charge of a dozen highly skilled investigative reporters? Where would I sic them? What marching orders would I give them?
(Dan Froomkin, deputy editor of Nieman Watchdog, put those questions to me recently.)
The number of registered Washington lobbyists increased nearly 45 percent between 1998 and 2008, from 10,405 to 14,443, while total reported spending on lobbying more than doubled, from $1.44 billion to $3.30 billion.
(An update: A new report from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics shows an increase of 5 percent in 2009, to a new all-time high of $3.47 billion, even though: “The economy stunk. Corporations slashed jobs. And some firms, once juggernauts of American industry, simply ceased to exist….In 2009′s 4th quarter, lobbying expenditures increased nearly 16 percent over 4th quarter levels from 2008, whereas spending only increased about 3 percent from the 3rd quarter of 2008 to the same period in 2009.”)
Lobbying and bribery go way back. Once, before he became Supreme Court Justice in 1916, Louis Brandeis showed a distillery lobbyist a list of Massachusetts state legislators and asked him to check off the names of those who could be bribed, according to Melvin Urofsky in the book “Louis D. Brandeis/A Life.” The lobbyist quickly did so and handed the list back. Brandeis reportedly lectured him on the evils of bribery until tears rolled down the lobbyist’s cheeks.
Here is a dictionary definition of a bribe: “Money or any other valuable consideration given or promised with a view to corrupting the behavior of a person, esp. in that person’s performance as an athlete, public official, etc.”
I would ask the reporters to test the assumption that much of the relationship between lobbyists and lawmakers is, in reality even if not in the eyes of the law, bribery by, for example, attempting to put questions like the following to every available former lawmaker – particularly but not exclusively those who did not themselves become lobbyists:
Q. When a lobbyist able to direct significant campaign contributions either to you or to an actual or potential challenger asked you to support or oppose X or Y, did that request influence your response or actually corrupt your behavior?
Q. To what extent did the special interests that paid lobbyists $3.30 billion in 11 years get their money’s worth?
Q. To what extent was the “general welfare,” in the phrase in the Preamble to the Constitution, promoted or dis-served by that $3.30 billion?
Q. What share of the $3.30 billion would you say was spent on what was effectively – not legally – bribery, in that it was “given or promised with a view to corrupting the behavior of a person, esp. in that person’s performance as [a] public official”?
Q. What influence did a citizen who contributed, say, $50 to your election campaign have on you, as opposed to a lobbyist who contributed, or invested, $5,000?
Q. What was the influence of a citizen who wrote or called your office but was too poor to contribute to your campaigns and may not even have been a voter?
Q. By your estimate, do lobbyists significantly corrupt or improperly influence the behavior of what proportion of the 535 members of Congress?
Q. Do our lobbying, election, campaign-finance laws effectively legalize bribery?
Q. What impact on corruption of the electoral process do you foresee from the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case?
Q. Do you believe that a law providing for public financing of federal election campaigns would reduce the amount of corrupt behavior by lawmakers? If you do so believe, by how much? If you do not so believe, why not?
Q. Would you favor or oppose such a law?
Once the reporters had the answers of former lawmakers in hand, they would be assigned to confront as many present lawmakers as possible with those answers. They would also be assigned to ask President Obama whether he favors or opposes public financing of federal election campaigns, and why, and whether, if he is in favor, he will push Congress to enact public financing.
(Editor’s note: These are Mintz’s first ideas, right off the bat. Got any “assignment editor” ideas of your own? Let us know.)