This year, Wisconsin's Department of Transportation won't be allocating what has become its customary $18 million annual allotment for the maintenance and construction of state bike trails and pedestrian walkways. Instead, the money will become a negligible addition to Wisconsin's considerable highway fund.
Close observers of the state Legislature theorize this surprising turn of events was facilitated largely by lobbying efforts of the construction industry, which sought recompense for previous campaign contributions in the form of new highway projects. Strangely, as I realized the motive behind this legislative atrocity, I found myself almost wishing such a shift in funding had instead come at the behest of a few stodgy, old lawmakers with seniority who simply could not understand why anybody would want to ride a bicycle.
Money in politics: it's a discussion topic as worn out as, and perhaps even more worn out than, any other in this country. But it's still here, and it isn't going away anytime soon.
Consider the big money (literally) issues pervading American government today. In its recent session, a supposedly key element of the Republican U.S. Congress's agenda that ended up going entirely unaddressed (although, to be fair, this Congress did little more than agree to build a higher wall across the Mexican border) was that of lobbying reform. Given that the number of registered Washington lobbyists more than doubled from 2000 to 2005, even Jack Abramoff's circle of buddies, the Republicans — although ultimately not actually addressing it — had to acknowledge the exponentially growing realization among captains of industry that a lobbyist's salary is a high-interest investment.
In Wisconsin's state government, there are six lobbyists per legislator (a number that might even be considered relatively low; New York's average is 18 lobbyists per legislator). Really, how can the average Wisconsinite feel as if her state senator so much as hears her complaint when he's too busy listening to the six corporate crusaders sitting in his office to even pick up the phone?
While lobbying is big money's preferred technique of controlling U.S. legislation, other methods of influence are employed during elections to make said control at the legislative level less difficult.
Even after Sens. John McCain and Russ Feingold labored to restrict the impact of "soft money" on political campaigns, a big bank account is still the dominating force of political campaigns. PACs, 527 groups and other such organizations, which have a loophole essentially no more complicated than the fact that they are not officially linked to a candidate, were dominant campaign channels for money during the 2004 elections and will continue to be exploited until some new piece of legislation forces the invention of yet another creative alternative method for money to be heard.
So, here we are: a government dominated by money, a few non-corrupt politicians trying to plug the holes, and a citizenry disengaged from the matter altogether. Who is to say we wouldn't be better governed by some benevolent king, some foe of big money, whose mission it was to recover funds currently wrested away from the people by incentive-waged lobbyists of major industries, focused solely on ripping wider the holes in Uncle Sam's pockets to better pad their own and those of their corporate superiors?
Under any condition, a thriving democracy is a lofty goal and perfect democracy an impossibility. This has been understood by most of the concept's proponents since its inception. Still, did the creators of Athenian democracy foresee a possible harmony between their idea and capitalism? Did they foresee the possibility of capitalism at all?
The free market, as the world is increasingly learning, is an unstoppable force and, when cohabitating with democracy, is the unquestioned master of the house. Among those even expressing concern about this matter, nobody seems to have an answer.
Is there an answer? Is anything more powerful than money?
Rob Rossmeissl ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in journalism and political science.