The Center for Public Integrity has sent me a press release bemoaning the fact that 1,800 organizations are trying to influence Congress as it considers a new transportation bill (we used to call it the highway bill). These organizations, CPI tells us, are employing 2,100 lobbyists and spending $45 million on their lobbying efforts. CPI is setting up an interactive map showing who is hiring these lobbyists.
I suppose this is interesting. But it’s hardly surprising that local governments, planning agencies, real estate firms and construction companies are hiring lobbyists when you consider, as CPI reports, that the transportation bill, if and when passed, is going to allocate something like $500 billion of federal funds. Can we reasonably expect that people who want those funds are just going to sit around passively waiting for them? Or does it stand to reason that in a nation where the right “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” is guaranteed by the First Amendment people are actively going to seek some of that money for their own favorite projects?
Are there any implications for public policy here? CPI can’t be arguing that we should prohibit such lobbying; that would violate the First Amendment. It can’t be arguing that such lobbying efforts should be required to be disclosed; they already are, and those disclosures are presumably the source for the CPI’s interactive map. The only remaining public policy implication I can think of is that the federal government shouldn’t be handing out such a giant pot of money, and should just leave transportation issues to the states, as was the case in the early republic. But that libertarian position is a nonstarter politically (House members throng to get on the 75-member Transportation and Infrastructure Committee) and is, I suspect, not at all the view of CPI and its staff.
The point here, I suppose, is to identify situations in which some earmark by a member of Congress benefits some developer who has contributed a lot of money to him or her. Well, perhaps they’ll spot some hanky-panky, like the amendment by former committee Chairman Don Young of Alaska to authorize an interchange on I-75 in Florida which just happened to benefit a supporter who bundled a lot of contributions to him. But it’s not clear that that violates House rules, much less criminal law. What we are left with is the reality that if the government hands out a lot of money, a lot of people are going to try to get their hands on it.