RISE OF THE CORPORATE SPECIAL INTEREST SYSTEM
Before launching into the statistics of the 80s, it is important
to understand the sea-change in American politics that occurred in the
70s. America entered the 70s with a firm commitment to helping the poor,
a legacy inherited from Roosevelt's New Deal, Johnson's Great Society,
and the social radicalism of the 60s. Several changes in the 70s, however,
would give rise to a quite different political culture: the corporate special
The first change was the 1974 decentralization of power in the House
of Representatives, when 22 committees delegated much of their authority
to 172 subcommittees.1 This not only created
a mass of competing special interests, but enabled corporations to lobby
their particular subcommittees much more directly, secretly and effectively.
The second major change was the 1975 SUN-PAC decision, which essentially
legalized corporate political action committees (PACs) and their donations.
In 1974, there were 89 corporate PACs; a decade later, this had exploded
to 1,682. The result was an enormous shift in political power. In the late
70s, corporate PACs scored a number of victories -- defeating Ralph Nader's
proposal for a Consumer Protection Agency, killing a tax hike -- that galvanized
the business community as never before. "Success," journalist
Hedrick Smith drily noted, "brought more bees after the honey."
2 Corporate political activism soared; one lobbyist
described the atmosphere in 1980 as "a genuine virtual fervor."
In 1992, corporations formed 67 percent of all PACs, and they
donated 79 percent of all contributions to political parties. 4
Studies show an exceptionally high correlation between PAC donations and
the laws passed in their favor. Although the right to petition Congress
is a constitutional one, citizens without donations are never granted access
to their representatives. One could argue, therefore, that the corporate
special interest system is unconstitutional.
In 1994, Republicans took over Congress, claiming to end 40 years of
liberal rule. But the 80s were a profoundly conservative era, with corporate
lobbyists urging tax cuts, deregulation, business exemptions, re-armament
and welfare reduction. Democratic politicians participated in the new system
every bit as willingly as Republicans. During the 80s, corporate PACs freely
gave to incumbents of both parties, because both accommodated them. Incumbents
won the donations 90 percent of the time.5
The researchers of one PAC study wrote: "When we began [our] interviews
[with lobbyists]... we assumed corporate PACs would have many enemies in
Congress -- people who were out to get them and that they in turn wanted
to defeat. We regularly asked about this in interviews and were surprised
to learn that corporations didn't really feel they had enemies in Congress."
The only exception was Senator Howard Metzenbaum -- a Democrat in the old
fashioned sense of the word -- whom lobbyists mentioned repeatedly. However,
Metzenbaum retired in 1994.6
If this comes as a surprise, one should know that the anti-business
rhetoric of most Democrats is for public consumption only. According to
the above researchers, "One PAC official told us, 'You have [politicians]
that will hold rallies right outside this building here, hold news conferences
and picket lines periodically, every year,' attacking the company and its
policies. However, 'When they go to Congress… they tend to ameliorate their
anti-big business or pro-consumer stance.'"7
The rise of the corporate special interest system in the 70s
was an important precondition for the Reagan Revolution.
Return to Overview
1 Hedrick Smith, The Power Game:
How Washington Works (New York: Ballantine Books, 1988), p. 25.
2 Ibid., p. 31.
3 Anonymous quote from a corporate
PAC director in Dan Clawson, Alan Neustadtl and Denise Scott, Money
Talks: Corporate PACs and Political Influence (New York: HarperCollins,
1992), p. 142.
4 Center for Responsive Politics, Washington
5 Clawson et al., p. 13.
6 Ibid., p. 114.