COMMUNITY VOICES | Something good from the gun bill defeat

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Without a doubt, one of the great movies of all time was The Wizard of Oz. In the end, Dorothy (actually her dog Toto) had the nerve to pull back the curtain and learn the truth about the Wizard – just an old man pulling a bunch of levers that made lots of smoke, noise…and fear.  Very similar to what happened to the now defeated gun control bill in the Senate.

Once we have pulled back the curtain, the truth emerges.  Some folks pulling a bunch of levers. However, in this case, pulling the curtain back presents us with two vital lessons: the general power of lobbyists in our political system, and the NRA’s ability to use them. If that brings change, perhaps we can get something good out of the gun control defeat. 

Most Americans would be shocked if they understood how potent lobbying is in our Congress as just happened during the Senate vote on background checks.  Examining some statistics at the Federal level in 2011, where there are good numbers available, there was $3.3 Billion spent on lobbying in Washington; that is double the amount spent just ten years earlier. That supported 12,719 registered lobbyists – and some quick math tells us that there were 23 lobbyists for every one of the 535 members of Congress that year.  Or stated another way, there are about 14,000 people who work on the Hill – so there is about one lobbyist for every staffer in Congress. 

(Local side note: in 2011 there were 1496 registered lobbyists in the State of Minnesota – about 7 ½ for each legislator. They spent over $65 million on lobbying our 201 legislators, or about $325,000 each). 

Which brings us to another travesty in this system of lobbying and influence; the incestuous relationship between K Street and Congress. In the past several years over 5400 congressional staffers have left to join lobbying organizations, or companies with an in- house lobbying staff.  Worse yet, 400 former legislators now have some role in lobbying, including many defeated from the 112th Congress. It is an easy segue, almost a revolving door. So the expertise, influence, relationships – and money – continue to grow.

So, who are the big spenders? As you might expect the largest is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, busy protecting mostly large corporate interests, especially in the area to taxation; which explains a lot why so many large American companies pay little or even nothing in the way of U.S. Federal taxes. The Joint Committee on Taxation estimates there will be $154 billion in special corporate tax breaks in 2013, contained in 135 individual provisions of the tax code. That is a healthy return on the investment on lobbying, but doesn’t do much for the average citizen.

However, among the sector spenders, number one is the pharmaceutical industry. They invested almost $250 million to make sure our drug costs stay high. Right behind is the insurance industry (wonder why health care reform has been so difficult?). The oil and gas industry is next – they make billions in profit with few if any Federal taxes. Then come utilities…and so it goes. Which brings us to the gun lobby.

In terms of investing in lobbying, the NRA is tiny – but extraordinarily effective for several reasons.  First, the have done their marketing homework well, and they apply extreme pressure to a few congress people, in districts and states where they can get results (getting “results” means creating enough fear among the Senators and Representatives they target to intimidate their re-election chances). As a part of this scenario, the NRA also spent $19 million trying to influence certain elections in 2012.  

Secondly, they have pretty much a single issue lobbying message, unlike say the Chamber of Commerce who has to deal with many issues for many companies. And it is a simple one, almost always variations on: “We will protect the Second Amendment with all our resources…so they won’t be able to take your guns away”.

Thirdly, they use their lobbying to mobilize their members. In the advertising business this was analogous to running a large consumer campaign, then promoting it back to the stores, “you better stock up for the demand about to happen”. The NRA tells its members about the intensity of its lobbying, and tells them when and where added pressure is needed to make it work. Apparently the members responded, creating somewhat of a tyranny of the minority. 

In regard to the minority power of the NRA, it is interesting to determine the actual size of the group. In testimony before Congress last Jan. 30. NRA head Wayne La Pierre claimed: “…more than 4.5 million moms and dads and sons and daughters, in every state across our nation… make up the National Rifle Association of America.”  Others have estimated actual membership more like 3.1 million. But that is less than one percent of the American public; and with about 70 million gun owners, only a little over four percent of that group.

So back to Oz. We’ve pulled the curtain back and what we find is a group (not a Wizard) pulling a bunch of levers, making lots of noise, pumping out all sorts of smoke, and creating lots of fear where none should really exist. It is likely to come up again soon. Question is: then what will we do about it?

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