The Best Congress Money Can Buy?

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What's the going market rate for a friendly Congressman?

Of course, it's illegal to bribe a legislator. But according to recent episodes of the NPR shows Planet Money and This American Life, Congressmen on powerful committees have a much easier time raising money for their campaign war chests than members of less-powerful committees. And this political clout can be measured in precise dollar amounts.

According to NPR and the Sunlight Foundation, a member of the House Ways And Means Committee (which has jurisdiction over the US tax code) raises an extra $250,000 a year compared to the average Congressman. Members of the Financial Services Committee (which regulates banks) raise an extra $180,000. A seat on the Energy and Commerce Committee (which oversees the oil and gas industry) is worth $140,000.

In contrast, some committee memberships are detrimental to fundraising. Members of the Judiciary Committee raised $182,000 less than the average Congressman. These facts are well known to the leadership of both political parties, who rank congressional committees as A, B, or C, based on their fundraising potential.

Legislators' fundraising abilities reflect the power they wield over the economy. Economic interest groups have a powerful incentive to support legislators willing to pass laws that can help their bottom line. And these numbers publicized by NPR show exactly how much lobbyists are willing to pay.

Although campaign contributions from special interest groups may look uncomfortably close to legalized bribery, NPR notes that the appearance of corruption runs in both directions:

"We imagine lobbyists stalking the halls of Congress, trying to influence lawmakers with cash. But often, it's the other way around: Members of Congress stalk lobbyists, looking for contributions."

Last year, conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart released audio of Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton soliciting money from a lobbyist. She expressed "surprise" that the lobbyist hadn't donated to her campaign yet and bluntly reminded him that she was chairman of the subcommittee with jurisdiction over his "sector."

But regardless of whether it's a legislator engaging in a near-shakedown of a lobbyist or a lobbyist attempting a near-bribe of a legislator, the root of the problem is the same. Government has vast regulatory powers over Americans' economic transactions. Hence, those who are affected will have a correspondingly large incentive to sway government laws in their favor.

We're seeing this play out in health care as well.

According to Michael Cannon of the Cato Institute, in the first three years after Massachusetts passed its "individual insurance mandate," special interest groups successfully lobbied to have their particular pet benefits included in the mandatory package all residents must purchase - including drug abuse treatment, autism therapy, non-in-vitro fertility services, and orthotics. Cannon noted, "The Massachusetts Legislature is considering more than 70 additional requirements."

Unless ObamaCare is overturned by the Supreme Court or repealed by Congress, we can expect a similar lobbyist feeding frenzy at the national level. At a 2011 Health and Human Services "listening session" to solicit public input on the "Essential Health Benefits Package" that insurers must offer (and Americans must purchase) on government-run exchanges, special interest groups proposed mandating that insurance plans include services such as pediatric vision coverage, "eating coaches," HIV testing, and chiropractic care. If history is any guide, this advocacy will be accompanied by millions of lobbyist dollars.

Curiously, both politicians and lobbyists feel trapped by a system they regard as unsavory. Politicians hate the constant pressure to chase lobbyist dollars - but do so because they don't want to be at a disadvantage relative to opponents doing the same. Conversely, lobbyists feel constant pressure to contribute to politicians, lest they be at a regulatory disadvantage relative to competing interest groups who are contributing money.

Many liberals correctly recognize that the current system is corrupt, but they wrongly place the blame on "money in politics." They've attempted to fix the problem through ever-stricter campaign finance laws limiting how money can be spent for (or against) political candidates or causes. But this approach is doomed to fail. Every time one legal avenue of political spending is closed, lobbyists and legislators find other ways to channel money into political campaigns. "Money in politics" is not the fundamental problem. Rather, it's merely a symptom of a deeper problem caused by politicians' control over the economic marketplace.

Instead of limiting "money in politics," we must limit the scope of government. Ayn Rand once advocated "a separation of state and economics, in the same way and for the same reasons as the separation of state and church." The proper function of government is to protect our individual rights, such as our rights to free speech, property, and contract. Only those who initiate physical force or fraud can violate our rights. A properly limited government thus protects our rights by protecting us from criminals who steal, murder, commit fraud, and so on, as well as from foreign aggressors. But it should otherwise leave honest people alone to live peacefully and to engage in voluntary economic transactions in a free market as they see fit.

Our current system is not a free market, but rather a mixed economy with some free-market elements combined with heavy government regulations. The only way to eliminate the corrupting influence of money in politics is to move towards truly free markets with correspondingly limited government. To "get the money out of politics," we must get politicians out of money - i.e., out of economic regulation. Once the government is forbidden from interfering with the free market, lobbyists will no longer have an incentive to buy lawmaker votes.

P. J. O'Rourke once said, "When buying and selling are controlled by legislation, the first things to be bought and sold are legislators." The going "market rate" for a powerful Congressman may be $250,000. But there should be no such market of this sort. Only a free market in economics can eliminate the current corrupt "market" for politicians.

Paul Hsieh, MD, is a physician and co-founder of Freedom and Individual Rights in Medicine (FIRM). He practices in the Denver area.

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