I recently drove from Colorado to Virginia, which got me thinking about … lobbyists.
Heading east on Interstate 70 from Denver, it doesn’t take long before giant wind farms dominate the landscape, and the sight continues for hours into western Kansas, the Land of Oz. The hundreds of gigantic skeletons and high winds buffeting my truck were a testament to the abundance of wind power on the Plains.
Those wind farms are soon to be joined by many more, thanks to profligate spending in Washington that will deliver nearly $800 billion in “clean energy” handouts in the next decade. Green lobbyists spent $47 million last year getting their spots at the feeding trough — though that is still less than one-quarter of what oil and natural gas interests spend on lobbying.
Nestled at the base of many of the windmills are giant fields of corn and soybeans. Thanks to highly effective ethanol fuel lobbyists, U.S. consumers pay more than $10 billion more for fuel each year than they would otherwise.
Sure, those veggies are “renewable,” but both ethanol and biodiesel eat away at engines, cause food shortages, and interfere with normal agriculture markets. Jonathan Lesser of the Manhattan Institute suggests that it would be cheaper and cleaner to make cash payments to farmers.
Hitting America’s decrepit highways also got me thinking about transportation lobbyists. The interstate highway system is hit-or-miss in terms of road quality, but based on the condition of I-70 through Indiana, their congressional delegation has clearly come up short in garnering federal highway dollars.
That will change thanks to the $1.2 trillion infrastructure spending bill from last year, including $60 billion for states. State and local governments are lining up at the trough to get their share of the money (and spending as much as $103 million on lobbying to do it).
Some have a distinct advantage — if they align with the Biden administration’s requirement to give 40% of funding to disadvantaged communities — making equity, not effectiveness, the primary goal.
A drive across America brings to mind a lot of other lobbyists. Transportation lobbying accounted for $287 million last year (almost half of that from our poverty-stricken airline industry).
The banking and finance industry spent $1.2 billion in 2021-22 on lobbying and campaign contributions. Health care: $282 million. Construction: $139 million. Total U.S. spending on lobbying last year was $4.09 billion.
That’s a lot of swamp.
I am not opposed in principle to lobbying, and it certainly seems to fall under the freedom of association and speech guaranteed in the First Amendment. During the ratification debate in the 1780s, in Federalist Paper No. 10, James Madison warned of the danger of factions:
“A number of citizens, whether amounting to a minority or majority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”
Madison suggested that economic interests would likely shape many of these factions, yet he did not insist that factions be eliminated but rather harnessed. He believed that the system of checks and balances created by the Constitution would keep factions from dominating the new nation.
But he did not envision a country with “permanent interests” or an unlimited public purse. If the government restricted itself to a balanced budget and to the powers vested in it by the Constitution, it would not create an artificial $800 billion market for green technologies.
Members of Congress would not rake in enormous campaign contributions from industries averse to the rights and interests of their constituents. Far too often, at both the national and state levels, government seems to be about delivering on the needs of special interests and not representing the interests of citizens.
There is a long national highway from the redwood forests to the Rocky Mountains to “the swamp.” As long as we keep electing people to office without any sense of fiscal restraint, fields of tall ethanol corn and twirling windmills will continue to litter our national landscape along that yellow brick road.
• Tom Copeland is director of research at the Centennial Institute. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Centennial Institute and Colorado Christian University.