Friday, January 8, 2010

Interest group politics, justice and democracy

Interest group politics, justice and Democracy

With Congress in session again the pressure is on to complete the health care overhaul bill. As we come into the home stretch, the lobbyists will be out in full force once more. Here is what some of the largest lobbyists spent before Christmas 2009: the big drug manufacturers – $6.2 million dollars; the American Medical Association – $4 million; different insurance companies spent $1 or $2 million each. The total is unclear, but it apparently set a record for health care lobbying. Some estimates speak of lobbyists spending $1.4 million per day. Just think of how much health care that sort of money could buy.

The outcome is predictable: there are some winners and some losers. On the whole, the people who spend money lobbying are the winners and the rest of us who don't have money to lobby are bound to be the losers. Private insurance companies will continue to make money off all of us; the big pharmaceutical companies will continue to get bigger and fatter; the poor, the working people, and the middle class will continue to pay too much for often not adequate care.

The whole disgraceful process shows up the mortal peril of our democracy. The prime motivation of voters and elected officials in our democracy is self-interest. Everyone is in there to grab a piece of the pie. We vote our pocketbook; our representatives like their jobs and want to be reelected. So they vote for whatever will keep them in office. The first question anybody asks about proposed legislation is: what's in it for me?

You may well ask: what is wrong with that? What else should I be voting except my pocketbook? Why should representatives not try to please the people who voted for them?

It will be useful to consult the authors of our Constitution to find out what they thought about the question of voting one's pocketbook or one's self interest in remaining in office.

The current US Constitution (without any of its Amendment which were added later) was signed in Philadelphia in 1787. It needed to be adopted in state assemblies before it could become the official Constitution of the United States. The local debates about adoption were extremely lively. In New York State, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison published a series of articles explaining different aspects of the proposed constitution and urging its adoption. These articles were later collected in book form under the title The Federalist.

In one of these articles, James Madison discusses what he calls “factions.” “By faction I understand a number of citizens... who are united and actuated by some common impulse of . . . interest, [opposed to] to the rights of other citizens or to the permanent and aggregate interest of the community.” “Faction” was Madison's name for what we call an interest group-- a group of people who are motivated by their self interest. Lobbyists represent factions or interest groups. A democracy whose decisions are all motivated by private interest groups is one where, in the words of James Madison, “governments are too unstable and the public good is disregarded... and measures are too often decided not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party but by the superior force of interest . . . “ Where private interest rules, the public good is not promoted neither is justice. The nation's political life consists of power struggles between private interest groups who only care for their own interest and therefore do not ask themselves whether the measures they promote are good for everybody. Questions of justice are disregarded.

Madison praises the proposed constitution because he thinks it can avoid that problem of factions. He has no doubt that democracy fails when it is no more than different groups trying to get as much as they can for themselves. Democracy's goal and justification is liberty – not just for the rich and the people who can afford expensive lobbyists but for every one. But for all to be free, legislators must consider what is good for all, and not just for what is good for some folks who are already better off than many others. Liberty for every one is achieved only by representatives who care about the well-being of all. Good representatives care for what is best for all citizens and not just what is best for the clients of lobbyists. Good representatives honor justice and justice demands that everyone's interests be considered in legislation not only the interests of the rich and powerful.

The democracy we have today is not the democracy intended for us by the authors of the Constitution. The jockeying about portions of the current health reform legislation is a grim reminder that our democracy has nothing to do with what is good for everybody, with justice or fairness. Congressional deliberations have degenerated into a free-for- all where the law goes to the highest bidder. No one cares about what is good for all or about justice.

The saddest part is that a Congress that cannot even produce a bill to improve the health of everyone's body cannot be expected to improve the failing health of our democracy. The generation of Founders made a revolution to establish our republic. It is beginning to look as if we are coming close to needing another revolution. In 1790, Americans were willing to rise up for justice and liberty. Are we willing to fight for restoring real democracy?