You’ve seen the scene play out in countless movies. Two powerful men on the verge of argument rush into the closest men’s room for the privacy needed to yell at each other their justifications for their darkest actions. Disturbing truths are thrown about where no one but them can hear. Well, no one but them and the guy sitting in the stall. Because the men forgot to check under the closed stall doors for feet, now a third person knows their dark truth. This third man stares at the camera as he stays as still as he can, aware that what he’s hearing could be very bad for him. But that’s all fiction, right?
Well, sometimes. That very thing actually happened to me 20 years ago. I was the young man stuck in the stall in the senate office building, blissfully doing as God intended when a powerful state senator and a corporate donor suddenly burst into the bathroom in a very heated argument. You see, apparently the corporate guy gave the state senator a lot of money to vote a certain way on a bill, and the state senator took the money and promptly voted the other way. The senator justified what he did by yelling at the donor, “Look, Bill, sometimes I got my own neck to look out for!”
I managed to escape by flushing the toilet to let them know that somebody else was there with them. Then I stepped out quickly to wash my hands and leave the room without making eye contact. But I would be remiss if I didn’t say I was on edge for the next few days wondering if my fledgling career was over. But nothing happened, and probably for the reason I would find out later: this kind of backstabbing happens all the time. Over the nine sessions of the state assembly I covered as a legislative aide, association staffer, and lobbyist, I cannot tell you how many times I heard of a politician getting money from a corporation and then voting the other way. In my own little bubble of health care I’d hear of it happening several times a session, and considering how these incidences weren’t often blurted out, it must not have been an uncommon occurrence.
This backstabbing on the part of the elected officials makes a lot of sense. Just like us normal people, politicians look out for their own self-interests first, and they are not above trampling over people (and especially corporations) to get what they want. One would think that the expectation of being routinely treated like dirt would be bad enough, but the corporations and lobbyists serve another useful purpose for the politicians besides money. They’re perfect candidates to be that faceless, nefarious scapegoat who can be blamed for any political loss. Look at any divisive issue in this country – abortion rights, gun rights, gay rights, climate change – and you’ll see the losers blaming the faceless corporations and lobbyists for the loss. (The Koch brothers and George Soros are two favorite boogeymen of the Left and Right, respectively. I doubt 99% of Americans know what these guys look like, but apparently they’re to blame for everything.) And the politicians constantly get away with this because if you’re the average American, you would rather believe that some dark force of nature made everybody else in the country disagree with you rather than sucking up the truth that the majority of people think your belief is a bad idea. Besides, how willing are you to admit that you voted for a complete schmuck four times? It’s easier for us to blame something else.
Despite the catchphrases and soundbites and slogans, the corporations and lobbyists do not run our governments. They give out money, but at the end of the day they have no authority to vote on issues. What they try to do with their money is buy an insurance policy against the politician taking their money and then stabbing them in the back. If they give more money than their rivals, the politician has a greater chance of voting their way.
No, it’s still the elected officials who run our governments. They give their votes to the highest bidder, and then give prepackaged excuses about why they failed to an electorate that’s all too willing to want to believe it. Plus, the legislators don’t have to worry about retribution from unfortunate donors when they take their money, because they wrote the laws to ensure that anybody trying to extort or “buy” their vote will quickly see the inside of a jail cell. That’s what you can do when you actually run the government. You can throw people into jail if they go about giving you money the wrong way.
Like the humorous saying about bad beer, the best a corporation can do is rent a politician, not buy one. So the next time you hear a politician complain about the lobbyists and corporations who are ruining the government, put the blame where it really belongs: on the politicians you and I voted into office.
Written by Matt Haarington
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