Monday, April 12, 2010

How Washington Really Works: Part 1

(This is the first of a five-part series.)
We hear a great deal these days about “taking America back.” This popular slogan begs a few questions.
The first question is, “Take it back from whom?” Any attempt to answer that question tends to invite accusations of envy, populism, or a belief in conspiracies. While any or all of these accusations may be accurate, they tend to close off discussion rather than answer questions. Please pardon my caution, then, in writing part 1 of this series.
To understand what we must do to take America back, it’s helpful to understand who has America now, and how we lost it in the first place. In this article, I’m not going to present anything new to you. In this part of the five-part series, step by step, I’m going to tell you things that you already know or believe or suspect; but I’m going to put them together in a way that may surprise you.
If you’ve ever taken the initiative of contacting your congressman or anyone else in government, then you, like millions of others, have tried to influence the workings of government. You’re a special interest group, even if you’re a group of one.
Let’s limit this discussion to legislation and regulatory activity. There are basically three reasons people ask something of government:
1. To benefit themselves and, they believe, other people, whether we’re talking about a family, an industry, another interest, or the nation as a whole,
2. To benefit only themselves, though not at the expense of anyone else, and,
3. To benefit only themselves at the expense of other people.
As a general rule, people who combine into groups are more successful at influencing the functions of government than those who act alone. Groups of groups, such as political parties and those with compatible interests (such as environmental issues or religious issues) tend to be even more successful. Political parties in the U.S. usually claim to be ideologically driven, but, in fact, they’re just “holding companies” for diverse special interests.
Obviously, some groups are more successful than others at gaining influence in government policy. Some have gained actual power in certain areas of government policy.
At what point, then, does an interest group gain so much political power that it undermines the American ideals of democracy and freedom? Look at the list of three items again. Most people would agree that #3 should be the exception rather than the rule, and that the burden of achieving #3 should be negligible to the American people as a whole.
Groups that use their power to gain things for themselves at the expense of everyone else rarely, if ever, admit to selfish ends.
Our nation’s Founding Fathers gave us a system of government with checks and balances among three branches of government: legislative, executive, and judicial. They never envisioned the fourth branch of government we have today: regulatory agencies that are accountable to no one. These regulatory agencies write their own “laws,” enforce them, and judge the people who run afoul of them.
In Federalist paper #48, James Madison, acclaimed as the “Father of the Constitution,” wrote, “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive, and judiciary, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny." Regulatory agencies claim all three powers.
If regulatory agencies use a degree of power that “may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny,” who controls the regulatory agencies? How are they appointed, and why? In the next four parts to this series, I’ll use a combination of research tools called network analysis and issue sets analysis to show you who wields power in Washington, how they wield it, and what they gain from it. This will necessarily involve who holds the “power of the purse, as well as other forms of power brokerage. Some of the most influential power brokers can be found in the most unexpected places.
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