Why the First Issue Is Money in Politics

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A man counts one hundred dollar bills. (AP Photo/Tsering Topgyal)

(AP Photo/Tsering Topgyal)

Constitutional scholar and activist Lawrence Lessig, whose march through New Hampshire to get money out of politics is featured on our broadcast this week, often says that his crusade is the most urgent in America because it impacts virtually every other issue. From achieving tax reform to fighting climate change to strengthening the social safety net, we will see no progress until the wealthy entities that benefit can no longer buy up politicians to prevent the status quo from changing.

“The people who want to stop reform will pay an enormous amount of money to be able to achieve that,” Lessig told us when we met during his march. “…What this system has done is made the politics of dysfunction incredibly profitable.” Some lobbyists, he noted, even advertise their ability to exploit the system and use legislators to “delay and obstruct” progress in Congress.

“We will never get your issue solved until we fix this issue first,” Lessig said in a TED talk last year. “So it’s not that mine is the most important issue. It’s not. Yours is the most important issue, but mine is the first issue, the issue we have to solve before we get to fix the issues you care about.”

Here are five examples of issues beaten into stasis by a barrage of big money.


One example Lessig cites — one that motivates many progressives — is climate change.

“If you are a coal company who’s against the idea of climate change legislation, this [political system] is a boon for you,” he said, “because it’s trivial and cheap to be able to leverage your money, to guarantee nothing ever happens to adjust climate change.”

It’s a scenario America has seen play out time and again, most recently in 2009-10, when cap and trade, an idea that originated with the Reagan administration and had Republican support, seemed to have a real chance of working its way through Congress.

But in 2009, thousands of lobbyists representing energy and natural resource extraction companies spent more than they ever had before — over $400 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That record was broken the very next year, when spending reached $450 million.

Is it coincidental that in 2010, cap and trade was declared dead? In proposing climate change legislation that year, Sens. John Kerry (D-MA) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) refused to even discuss cap and trade as a realistic policy suggestion.

It wasn’t until last fall, when President Obama used an executive order to circumvent Congress and cap emissions from coal power plants, that the heaviest polluters faced across-the-board emission restrictions.

A similar story is unfolding right now with the Keystone XL pipeline, a massive project that, once operational, would pump more than 800,000 barrels of crude from Alberta’s tar sands to refineries on the US Gulf Coast — every day. It has become a defining issue for both the oil industry and environmental activists.

The pipeline’s approval is a decision over which a legacy-conscious Obama has vacillated for five years. Following a year of record spending by the American Petroleum Institute, the largest trade association for the oil and natural gas industry, and in the face of growing frustration from red state Democratic senators, earlier this month, the State Department released an environmental impact statement claiming that the project would have little impact on global climate emissions. That statement brought the project one step closer to approval, but the Obama administration cautioned that it was still weighing the pros and cons. A 30-day comment period has begun, during which environmental advocates will continue to encourage the administration to stand up to the oil industry, an outcry the oil industry can be expected to counter with another wave of money.


Tax reform is one key issue that especially inflames conservative activists. And as Lessig pointed out when we spoke, the problem of legislative paralysis knows no political alignment; it stumps would-be reformers on both the right and the left.

“It’s incredibly naïve to believe that this Congress will ever simplify the tax system, because the complexities in the tax system are fund-raising opportunities,” he told BillMoyers.com. “Every single special benefit is a reason and a target to raise more money.

“So the special Research & Development Tax Credit which Ronald Reagan created in 1981, and which was originally a temporary provision but has been temporary ever since, is temporary because each time it’s about to expire they have a long list of beneficiaries they can go to and say ‘Geez, we need to raise some money to support the idea of extending this temporary tax benefit.’”

In fact, as NPR reported, Congress annually rings in the New Year by letting dozens of tax breaks expire. There immediately follows a healthy round of campaign contributions, as lobbyists for a slew of industries — from overseas financial operators to rum retailers, from movie producers to racetrack operators — scramble to get those tax breaks reinstated.

Food Stamps

The recent farm bill cut food stamps even further than the already severe cuts implemented in 2013. But it preserves a different sort of safety net: subsidies for big agriculture.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, in both 2008 and 2013, the two most recent years that the farm bill has come before Congress (it’s renewed every five years), agribusiness spent more than $145 million on lobbying.

Recipients of food stamps, of course, don’t have the same kind of lobbying muscle to advocate on their own behalf. In a Congress pushing austerity, the programs that help the poor continue to hit the chopping block while recipients of corporate welfare can afford a hearty defense to protect their benefits.

In fact, both in 2008 and in 2013, although legislation to roll back agricultural subsidies had bipartisan support, the effort to do so fell apart.

And even though subsidies were “reformed” this year, The New York Times reports that in practice, these reforms mean little.

“It’s a classic bait-and-switch proposal to protect farm subsidies,” Vincent H. Smith, an economist at Montana State University, told the Times. “They’ve eliminated the politically toxic direct payments program and added the money to a program that will provide farmers with even larger subsidies.”

The 2014 farm bill cuts direct payments to farmers, but puts that money into the farm insurance program. Writing in The New Republic, David Dayen explains why this helps big agriculture even more than previous farm bills:

That’s because the farm bill will expand subsidies for crop insurance, which looks like a private-sector program but which actually hands over virtually the same amount of taxpayer money to farmers, mostly wealthy ones, as the old direct payment program. What’s more, the shift from direct payments to crop insurance ensures that those handouts can be distributed in a hidden, more politically palatable way, making it more difficult to ever dislodge them.

Minimum Wage

The fight over raising the minimum wage is a war of information. Conservative opponents of a proposed increase commission academic studies for use by lobbyists and their front groups. A recent New York Times report illustrates how one of the most prominent think tanks opposing the raise, the Employment Policies Institute, “is run by a public relations firm that also represents the restaurant industry, as part of a tightly coordinated effort to defeat the minimum wage increase that the White House and Democrats in Congress have pushed for.”

Their strategy has proven effective, with business groups and the mainstream media continuing to cite research claiming that a raise in the minimum wage will hurt the economy.

Recently, the hotel industry, a major employer of low-wage workers, announced it will lead the fight to keep wages low. According to the congressional newspaper The Hill, the American Hotel and Lodging Association, a group that includes such major hotel chains as Best Western, Hilton and Hyatt, has plans to “lead the charge to beat back the growing emergence of extreme minimum and living wage initiatives that are proven job-killers and ultimately hurt those who are building successful careers from the entry level.”

Simultaneously, as money continues to pour into Congress to keep a low minimum wage at the federal level, proponents of increasing it are turning to the states and cities, where they are finding some limited success.

Net Neutrality

Last month, a federal appeals court struck down Net neutrality, the principle that Internet service providers cannot give favorable treatment to some content over others (e.g., Verizon could not give a faster connection to their own video streaming service than to Netflix).

Tom Wheeler, the new head of the FCC, has not settled on a permanent fix to settle Net neutrality, but says he will announce one soon.

One very easy way for the FCC to reinstate Net neutrality would be to reclassify the Internet under the Federal Communications Act as a telecommunications service, not an information service, giving the agency broader regulatory powers. But if the FCC does that, lobbyists representing Internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon, and their Republican allies, will put up a huge fight.

Meanwhile, congressional Democrats’ recent attempt to use legislation to preserve Net neutrality until the FCC has time to settle on a permanent fix looks likely to die in the House. It is strongly opposed by industry-backed Republicans. For one, Comcast is the second biggest campaign donor to Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR) — and he’s chairman of the communications and technology subcommittee. Instead, FCC Chairman Wheeler reportedly is leaning toward not reclassifying the Internet, but promising instead to take rigorous enforcement action against those Internet providers that attempt to use their considerable size and power to monopolize business or abuse consumers.

But Wheeler is a former lobbyist for the companies he’s now supposed to regulate. Add to that Comcast’s considerable lobbying clout and Washington connections, which soon may be magnified by its proposed merger with Time Warner. There’s reason for doubt that Wheeler’s plan would be effective.

John Light is a writer and journalist sometimes based in New York. He writes a lot about climate policy, both inside and outside of the US. He was a former associate digital producer for Moyers & Company. His work has been supported by grants from The Nation Institute Investigative Fund and the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Awards, and has been included in ProPublica's #MuckReads collection. You can follow him on Twitter at @LightTweeting.
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  • Anonymous

    Voters have to acknowledge that they share a large part of the blame for a dysfunctional system when they (a) re-elect individual members of Congress at roughly the same percentage as they disapprove of them collectivity and (b) continue to contribute money to their campaigns whilst their own needs are being largely sidelined at best and, more often than not, actually whittled away with every act passed or law ignored.
    Who can blame those in power for taking advantage of folks willing to pay for being screwed? Obviously not US voters.

  • Anonymous


  • JJ042804

    I would love to send them all to Prison.

  • Anonymous

    There is no comparison of the amounts of money spent pro and con here.
    Clearly the industry spends money on television ads,
    The amount spent by ecological advocacy groups for advertising via the inter-net is undoubtedly a small fraction of the amount spent by industry, but remains enormous.
    Most troubling, is that with all of those boatloads of money being spent by the opposing sides for advocacy ads, there is very little reliable INFORMATION being generated from which to make a decision.

  • Anonymous

    Do we think a gravity flow pipe-line or motorized transport is the better way to carry the oil from the Alberta fields to the Louisiana refineries?

    Can we consolidate our existing network and use other pipelines instead of building an entire new network?

    Should we try to offset production in easy to reach deposits with Tar Sands production and save some easy deposits for posterity?

    What measures should be taken to minimize damage from the tar sands and pipeline and to heal the damage when the oil is gone? Who pays? Is Canadian Tar Sand oil recovery and processing more or less damaging and/or more or less easy to fix later than alternative means of energy production?

    What CONSERVATION measures could be enacted as an offset for the destructiveness of the tar sands production?

    How damaging to the US-Canada relationship would a refusal by the US to accept tar sands oil be?

    What are the international implications of the US taking oil from other countries instead of oil from Canadian tar sands?

    Like this one, the media stories on this vital issue seem more focused on the David and Goliath aspects of the media coverage rather than the issues involved.

  • Anonymous

    I do admire those who still manage to hold hope that we can cure this cancer before it kills the host. If TED Talks and marches from the likes of Lessig and Granny D, speaking to both extremes of the income spectrum and everyone in between, cannot raise awareness, anger and effective activism, nothing can. An endless supply of money will be spent to ensure that the money keeps flowing. If there was a tipping point where we had the chance to stop this insanity before it got out of hand, we probably missed it long ago. The FCC and the SEC have become pawns, not protectors.

  • Anonymous

    Money may be the biggest problem in politics generally, but there are localized exceptions. In DC, for example, the average citizen (barber, teacher, waiter, etc.) has a bigger problem — no representation at all in the legislature.

  • NJHope

    We’ve all watched as our neighbors and co-workers commented on these issues as if they were just a ripple on the lake of time, with no real impact on their daily lives. The impact is much larger, much longer than people have understood, or maybe cared to acknowledge. This is why each one of us must take up these issues and call out on them to this bunch of baboons we call a Congress. Quite literally they are not going to listen to The People unless the outcry is consistently strong, repeatedly pointed, and does not let up. The money is indeed the problem, or those who love it so much as to let it flow into their lives like a raging, bulging river. The People have not paid attention. Well it is time to listen up, folks. It is time to take up this issue and speak out on it – without end. Being a citizen of a nation demands that we participate. Unless we want to become the third world nation, we’re so rapidly heading towards. Do we really want that outcome?

  • NJHope

    And don’t think for one minute that the media is going to fix all this. It is up to you, people. Unless the media realizes that you demand the truth, from now on, they will just keep right on skimming across the top of this lake of poisonous policy we have allowed to become the norm.

    Thank god for people like Bill Moyers “& Company”.

  • joe ebbitt

    But what do we have to fight with? Billionaires finance single candidates for single issues ,take Newt Gingrich, He probably promised to start a war with Iran so Addilson(?) financed him almost exclusively. Same with the NRA, recall elections doomed two Colorado legislators careers, off year /special elections only get extremist (16%) of the electoral to vote. ALEC ,Heritage , Freedom Works ,Americans for Prosperity, Super Pac’s , relegated to suppress the vote so their laws will stand. And we got Unions ,vilified by big (dark) money, Christ, VW in Tennessee voted down unionizing . Who is so stupid to do that(rhetorical) ? So just like that non union mine Big Creek, 29 dead, productivity was so much the demand engineers circumvented safety to get production thus creating a deadly amount of volatile dust/gas in the air in the mine and ,29 dead. Campaign finance and campaigns in general need changing.

  • Anonymous

    Without the perspective of Bill Moyers where would we be put? Certainly business or multinationals that know no loyalties would find a shelf and play book to keep public discourse well defined and availiable for soloving each threat to bottom line or growth upward trajectory. Taking money out of politics and putting back in debate for the best of the common good would be a reversion to the thinking of our Founding Fathers.

    Guns would be put into place, corruption would be called out, short term thinking would be replaced, and like saying No to keystoneXL humanity would have the American government back in it’s corner. Seeing the right wing government of Canada destroy so much makes the warnings clear and a clear No by the President is more than over due.

  • Tom Halsted


  • Anonymous

    The #2 contributor of lobbying money and campaign contributions to Congress is the telecomm industry. #1 is Healthcare.

  • fmendoza


  • Radical democrat

    The # 1 grassroots group working to get money out of politics is Move to Amend dot org. If you want to be part of the solution, go to their site and sign the petition.

  • gininitaly

    It was a hundred year plan that started with the creation of the FED.


    In 1910, the seven wealthiest men in America met together on Jekyll Island, off the coast of Georgia. For nine days they laid plans for the structure and operation of a banking cartel (alliance) that would ensure they could control America’s money supply and credit. The purpose of this union was to guarantee they would work together to destroy any competition and to use the police powers of the government to protect the cartel’s operation. They called their alliance ‘The Federal Reserve’.

    A ‘cartel’ is a group of independent businessmen who form an alliance to coordinate production, pricing, marketing of something in such a way as to thwart competition, thereby increasing their own profits.


    These are the men who started the Federal Reserve at that secret meeting on Jekyll Island:

    [1] Nelson W. Aldrich, Senator from Rhode Island and Chairman of the National Monetary Commission, business
    associate of J.P. Morgan, father-in-law to John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (whose grandson is Jay Rockefeller, senator of
    West Virginia)

    [2] Abraham Piatt Andrew, Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Treasury.

    [3] Frank A. Vanderlip, President of the National City Bank of NY, the most powerful of the banks at that time,
    representing William Rockefeller

    [4] Henry P. Davidson, senior partner of the J.P. Morgan Company

    [5] Charles D. Norton, president of J.P. Morgan’s First National Bank of NY

    [6] Benjamin Strong, head of J.P. Morgan’s Banker’s Trust Company

    [7] Paul M. Warburg, representing the Rothschild banking dynasty in England and France


    The purpose of the union of these wealthy men was to guarantee centralized control over (to monopolize) the financial resources of the United States. Their plan was to concentrate the control of money and credit in the hands
    of just a few behind-the-scenes men, with a few lesser men working for them in front.

  • Leave A Mark

    What surprises me most is the continued cuts in social programs like food stamps in an era of great income inequality and huge increases in poverty. Lets not fool ourselves with gerrymandered percentages – when a population of poor goes from 26 million to over 50 million in just under 30 years – we have a serious issue. Yes, the issue is money, it’s certainly not people. Lets stop counting the money and start counting people. Its sad when our politicians are generously tossing safety nets to financial predators who are ‘to big to fail’ while the impoverished struggle to survive on few scraps set aside as ‘responsible tokenism’. Maybe I should be more surprised by our own apathetic response to these unnecessary cuts so detrimental to our middle and lower classes. Other nations would riot over such inequalities and obvious corruption, yet we sit idly by, allowing the economic elite to relentlessly press their advantage. What happened to our civic and moral compass?

  • Leave A Mark

    Why not all money, one man one vote. Lets at least begin to address the growing gap between rich and poor and the political privileges money buys. Money is just fiat currency which derives its value from government regulation. Private bank (the FED) creates ‘money’ or debt to lend to government which the banks circulate at interest. These exchanges spread ‘fiat’ and debt across all financial sectors including predatory lenders under the guise of unjust laws purchased from profits. Yes, we can get ‘money’ out of politics by regulating the ‘money’, along with it ‘exchangeability’ and power its capital creates. We can start by repealing corporate plutocracy.

  • Anonymous

    It would seem that the GOP has made money their god and wealth and power their religion. Everything they do starts and ends with money and power. They twist and manipulate the constitution and bible to justify their agenda. They have placed indoctrination before education, and they have abused their enormous wealth to enable the agenda they pursue in making the USA a two class society. There is no compromise with this cabal. They will shut down our government just to prove they can, and to scare the majority of citizens into following their dictates.

  • Alan Fitton

    Removing money from politics is a no brainier – I could never figure out why so many people who believe this to be true will still vote along party lines for the most popular (and most corporately funded) candidate. Why people can know that this is an oligarichal system but still have faith that the oligarchy will change things in favor of the masses over their own wants. It doesn’t make any sense. But when you own the media, you own their minds.

  • Alan kaplan

    The only real question concerning campaign contributions is are the politicians being bribed or are they “shaking down” their contributors.