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photos by Lara Shipley

Feedback Screech

July 31st, 2002 · No Comments

If you’ve ever held a microphone too close to its own speaker, you’ve experienced in a direct and irritating way the power of feedback loops. Often, feedback loops are useful: game theorists will tell you they can hasten convergence on an equilibrium outcome in collective action problems, and the evolutionary feedback loop generated by the mutually reinforcing interaction of male mating rituals and female preferences may even be the source of all human creativity. But in politics, as with microphones, they usually just produce a loud, annoying screech.

Consider, for example, the screeching of lobbying groups: more often than you might think, their cries for expanded government loop back in the form of federal grants to fund more cries for expanded government, which loop back toâ?¦ you get the idea. Of course, every subsidy is, in an indirect sense, a grant to a lobby for its own continuation. Any narrow group that gets a large handout from the state automatically has two things: a bunch of cash, and a powerful motivation to spend it guaranteeing the persistence of the dole. But Iâ??m thinking primarily of a still more offensive sort of feedback: payouts from government straight to the very groups that lobby government. Public deliberation is meant to weigh popular sentiment on questions of policy, but the state persistently holds its thumb on one end of the scale.

The so-called “Simpson Amendment” to the 1995 Lobbying Disclosure Act is supposed to prohibit the federal government, at least, from awarding grants, loans, or contracts to large lobbying organizations. But the devil is in the details: the amendment still allows non-profits receiving federal money to form â??affiliate organizations,â? which donâ??t share in the tax loot, to lobby. If that sounds fishy, it should. Money, after all, is fungible: if my non-lobbying organization can get the feds to pick up some of its non-lobbying operating costs, that frees up the resources that would have been devoted to those functions for lobbying activities.

Take the AARP Foundation, a shell corporation used by the AARP as a front to collect government money. Their website prominently announces that they wouldn’t dream of using federal funds for the AARPâ??s raison d’etre, engineering massive state plunder of the young for the old. Methinks the geezers doth protest too much. The federally funded job training and tax assistance programs run by the Foundation, whose site is one part of the AARPâ??s, and whose board of directors is nearly identical to the AARPâ??s, are the sorts of things AARP members would likely want in return for their dues. The federal subsidy allows those dues to be devoted entirely to expansionist lobbying. Ditto for the AFL-CIOâ??s Alliance for Retired Americans, which launders its federal money through the National Senior Citizens Education and Research Center.

A whopping $98 million of the AARP Foundationâ??s annual budget comes, oddly enough, from the Environmental Protection Agency, the federal governmentâ??s philanthropist extraordinaire. They paid the national Parent Teacher Association to create a newsletter to raise â??environmental awarenessâ? among their membership. The true purpose of that gift was revealed in a 1996 internal EPA memo, which said: “the PTA could become a major ally for the agency in preventing congress from slashing our budget…” The agency also threw over $5 million at the American Lung Association in 1997 (about ten times their usual contribution), after the ALA filed an amicus brief supporting the EPA in a legal battle with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce over an especially onerous new regulation. I guess the ALAâ??s ordinary cheerleading for more stringent environmental regulations wasnâ??t enough to bring in the really big bucks.

Government agencies will even create â??grassrootsâ? lobbying groups out of whole cloth if none are available. SmartGrowth.org, for example, was created by the EPA to oppose road construction and â??urban sprawlâ? at the community level. While they vociferously claim that they are not, in fact, a lobbying group, a quick glance at their site makes clear that they exist to overcome transaction costs faced by activists. Smartgrowth is, in effect, the gun by which the EPA aims its grassroots bullets at community policies it disapproves. A Minnesota court recently chastened the government-manufactured Minnesota Partnership for Action Against Tobacco, which spent $1.4 million helping pass community smoking bans, but only $551,000 on itâ??s supposed mission, helping smokers who want to quit.

Finally, consider some less obvious forms of subsidy. In many states, every public school teacher is automatically enrolled in the National Education Association, the most virulent opponent of school choice reforms. Often, union dues are deducted straight from teacher paychecks and handed to the NEA. In short, funds flow from taxpayers to the NEA with only a cosmetic stopover in state and local hands. True, teachers can (after going through an incredible amount of legal hassle) opt to have the portion of dues used for political activism given to a favored charity instead. The NEA has done everything in its power to circumvent this right, however, by deliberately misstating their lobbying expenditures. In the early 90s, the organization brazenly claimed that it had not spent a dollar on political action!

These are some especially egregious examples of government paying to lobby itself, but they are hardly unique. Agencies know that their vitality is a function of the political pressure they can bring to bear on legislators. Unable to lobby directly, these bureaucracies show Rube Goldberg-like ingenuity in devising means of doing it indirectly. If only they were equally ingenious at carrying out their primary functions.

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