Should businesses be allowed to influence policy to increase their profits?
Under current electioneering law known as The Hatch Act, federal employees and state employees who are funded by federal funds/grants are barred from engaging in several types of partisan political activity. Originally it was passed into law in 1939 to prevent government officials from using public funds and resources (including employees time) for electoral purposes.
Yet in the course of policy making, time, money, and other resources are accessed by our elected officials and staffers in order to move legislation forward.
Sometimes, lobbying and spending money on campaign donations to gain access to legislators seems like a good idea. Like these examples:
- A company making water pipes has an idea for how to redo the water system in Flint. Spending a thousand dollars for the CEO to have lunch with a key policy maker could be a great return on their investment.
- A bar owner thinks that she will make a lot more money if the minimum wage is raised in her town. She visits her city council member and points out she would be hiring more people if all the low wage workers hanging out in the bar have more beer money in their pockets.
Here’s another example that goes a little deeper than a meeting:
- A company in the prison business in an area with lots of minority citizens might do the math and figure out that decriminalizing marijuana will reduce the number of people arrested and the number of people incarcerated. They might then decide to produce some videos pointing out that people should be afraid of their town being overrun with marijuana users who engage in antisocial behavior and contribute large amounts of money to anyone running for office on a law and order or anti-drug platform. In this case the criminal justice industry is trying to profit from criminal justice policy.
The answer to this last example (in my mind) is just as the Hatch Act forbids natural people who are employed by the government from engaging in electioneering, we should also forbid corporate “people” who are employed by the government from electioneering.
Anyone who has an issue with activity by a government employee can report activity to the Office of Special Counsel which then determines if federal employees have participated in restricted activity. For instance, recently the Office of Special Counsel found that Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro violated the Hatch Law in an interview where he showed clear support of Secretary Clinton for President last April.
So let’s go back to the prison example. For better or worse the powers that be have ruled that in the case of a natural person (like one individual prison guard) the government has an interest in preventing even the appearance of corruption, but for a large corporation – the corporation’s right to free speech must reign supreme. Is that what Jefferson had in mind when he wrote: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech…?”
I don’t think so.