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I've often read headlines noting that the tax-prep lobby spends huge sums to preserve the status quo. But the numbers quoted in the article as evidence don't appear to support that claim. $6.6m seems low relative to these figures https://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/top.php?showYear=2018&inde... *

*I can't vouch for this site or its data

Relevant quote from the Tech Crunch article: "One reason why folks Congress could be pushing this through is all of the money that H&R Block and Intuit spent to lobby Senators and Representatives. ProPublica estimates that the tax prep industry has spent $6.6 million to advocate for the IRS filing deal. The Ways and Means chair, Neal, received $16,000 in contributions from the two companies in the last two election cycles, according to the ProPublica report."

The perrenial misunderstanding about lobbying in the US is that it's about money. It's not. It's about access. The money spent by lobbying firms is almost always in pursuit of that access. AKA buying a $10,000 plate at this donor dinner gets you a sit down with the Senator.

Not only do lobbyists get more accessible they get more credibility. The lobbyists are high paid lawyers at respected firms. They have degrees from respected schools. They have worked on the issue at discussion at lemgth. So when citizens are stacked up against these people they seem comparatively crankish.

This provision isn't in the bill because Intuit bribed someone. It's because that 6.6 million bought a lot of sit downs with committee members. Sit downs in which lobbyists told a convincing story of how it would actually be better for everyone of the IRS couldn't do this. Honestly they probably made some process argument for this. Something like it would get challenged in court anyway and be a big waste of money. Or about how you should make it illegal so the Executive Branch won't do it on their own and they'll have to take congressional input. And the lobbyist almost certainly believes whatever line their feeding the politicians.

It's like most broken things in life. No one is evil stuff just breaks.

I think this is a very level-headed view of lobbying and I want to say that I appreciate your comment. It’s enticing to imagine that Intuit is building a new pool on Chuck Schumer’s vacation property, and in a dark room somewhere a bunch of fat white guys are lighting this bill in fire with the ends of their cigars.

One other factor is that in “government time” we’re not far removed from the Healthcare.gov fiasco and in the middle of a debate over the technical debt of our easily hacked voting machines. Along with that, Premera and Equifax have suffered attacks.

I imagine there is nobody inside the actual government that is willing to try and “outdo” Turbotax.

This seems pretty in line with 18F's mission and skillset.

Didn't they basically get lobotomized and declawed recently? Like they lost a couple people, but due to the hiring freeze couldn't replace them.

Paying for access is a bribe. What confuses people is that yes it really is incredibly cheap to bribe Congress and get crazy high ROI, because Intuit can get organized (it's already a corporation with management) afford $6Million in bribes but Americans for sane tax policy can't.

This is what "moneyed special interests" refers to.

Just to clarify something: if you pay $10,000 for a plate at a campaign fundraiser, that is not reported as lobbying expenditure. It would not be included in that $6 million number.

Only direct spending on lobbying gets reported as lobbying expenditure--not campaign donations. Direct spending on lobbying includes the salaries of registered lobbyists and their support staff, contractors and vendors to create reports and ads and websites, law firms to give advice, etc.

When you see "X company spend $6 million on lobbying," not one cent of that money went to the politician being lobbied, either directly or indirectly. At the federal level, a lobbyist cannot even buy a Subway sandwich for a member of Congress. It's a felony.

Campaign donations are reported separately. Those donations are sometimes done to enable lobbying, as the post higher in this thread correctly states. My point is just to clarify how the numbers get reported.

Oh yes, I did muddy the water there a bit thank you for the clarification.

When I say it's not a bribe I mean in the classic "quid pro quo" sense. I certainly think it's not a great way to run a republic. My point is exactly that it's cheap because the representatives aren't looking to get rich off that money. It's cheap because they're just buying 20 minutes of time.

Politicians don’t put the bribes in their pockets. They put them in their re-election campaigns because without those bribes they will get voted out of office by The People in favor of an opponent with a larger, bribe-based ad budget. They don’t want the bribes, they need them just to stay in power. In return, the real goal of “access” is to hear what the bribing company wants written into law or else the bribes will cease and the politician will be booted out.

Competition for this ad budget is so fierce that Congresspeople spend more than half of their working hours reaching out to groups they need bribes from. This skews the laws not always in favor of the groups, but really in favor of whatever motivates the groups to bribe harder. Ex: if simplifying the laws would make everything easier for everyone, we can’t have it. We need the existing complexity to fight and have bidding wars over.

No matter what you want Congress to do, they can’t do it until we fix campaign finance. Doesn’t matter what issues you care about. They’ll only be worked on incidentally if they don’t get in the way of the bribes.

You don’t like it. Congress doesn’t like it. They’re trapped and can’t move against it without getting cut off and booted out. We’re all fucked until we find a catch-22-escape for them.

> Politicians don’t put the bribes in their pockets.

Yes, they do. All the time.

> They put them in their re-election campaigns because without those bribes they will get voted out of office by The People in favor of an opponent with a larger, bribe-based ad budget.

You kind of fail at corruption if you are getting bribes many times the annual salary of a job per year and are feeding them into nothing more than keeping that job.

Most corrupt politicians do not fail at corruption that badly.

>Yes, they do. All the time.

Most of them don't need to do something as explicitly criminal as taking money from a lobbyist and using it for personal expenses.

There are far better ways for members of congress to make money--passing laws that benefit companies they or their family members are invested in and taking lucracitive industry jobs after they leave office for example.

> Yes, they do. All the time.

Can you point us to some documented examples?

> Politicians don’t put the bribes in their pockets.

That is also my understating. That is where the revolving door comes in. Many a career Senator or House member has capped off a career with a lobbying job. It's also good to note that most people who ever sit in the House or Senate were quite wealthy before running. You kind of have to be.


Seconding this. I wish more people understood that "lobbying" is largely making a case to congressional staff, not another word for bribery.

And half the problem is that we need more lobbying, not less.

Donor access is an issue, but I think the larger problem that no one knows how to address with campaign finance laws of any kind is that someone with enough money can simply use that money to hire an army of persuasive people, much as you described.

At the end of the day, if money buys access and money tends to accumulate in a power law distribution it means that access - and thus influence or even speech are not equally distributed. So, while it may not be a bribe, it’s hard to see it as fair.

Moreover, if paid access is required and that payment goes to the politician - or their campaign which is just an extension of the process to keep them in power, I’m not sure how you can see it as anything other than a bribe that is legitimized by a few layers of well educated lawyers or other experts who do some work to make a case that is inevitably aligned with the best interests of the “donor”. That still sure sounds like pay to play politics to me.

I don't think anyone here is arguing that it isn't deeply problematic, just that thinking of it as paying for a bill to get passed misses the point.

It's an important distinction to make, because almost all reporting and outrage about bribery is about quid-pro-quo: newspaper reports about politicians spending time at five star resorts etc. etc.

If we enact laws (or social pressure) to stop this, but the lobbyists remain in the ear of politicians by unpaid means (going to the right schools, having the right friends) then all that outrage has accomplished nothing.

I definitely don't believe it's fair. Just that it's important to appreciate the problem that wealth can hire genuine persuasion, and that problem is distinct from bribery.

Reported donations also don't capture that lobbyists can threaten to contribute to an opposing campaign. A candidate receiving a $10k donation may also have received a $70k threat (in the form of a donation to an opponent) had they decided otherwise on an issue.

I'm sure it's just coincidental that senators and their family/friends frequently get lucrative positions on the boards of various companies, investment sweeteners, and actual positions in these companies for family. For example Joe Biden, a leading Democrat, has been in bed with the credit card industry for most of his career and supported/written legislation in their interest. MBNA was one of his biggest donors and hired one of his sons at an executive level, no doubt with very high pay.

The campaign contributions are just window dressing for the rest of it. It absolutely is bribery.

There's no coincidence about the revolving door and corporate nepotism. But it's not as simple as I give you money, you employ my kid.

I kind of wish it were because that would be much easier to do something about. Those things are just the long term effects of paying for access. The frequent close work between lobbyists, politicians and career servants lead to friendships and strong network effects. I'm not defending the system. I'm pointing out why $6.6 million is more than enough to influence a bill. It's because they're not buying a vote. They're buying time to discuss an issue that will probably never get argued any other way to the representative.

Sorry, but it is that simple. We live in a second gilded age with near total regulatory and legislative capture and trying to soft pedal it by using euphemisms like 'strong networks' does not obfuscate the fact that this is a commercial relationship between bought politicians and the corporations that buy them.

In the face of overwhelming pieces of evidence, year after year after year like the article being discussed here, doing so is just pointless sophistry and contrarianism for the sake of it.

I absolutely disagree. There is a difference between quid-pro-quo corruption and what we have now. And there are important differences in the way you architect a system to prevent one vs. the other.

I think it's because you're are defending your point from a deontological point of view, while the person you're responding to is arguing from a consequentialist point of view.

For a consequentialist, arguing on the ethics of the acts leading to the consequence is moot (and I think he's quite right that from a consequences point of view, the situation is hard to distinguish from quid pro quo corruption).

Of course, I'd love to see you too reconcile Kant and Machiavel, but you're fighting bad odds here ^^

Another way to think about it is that if people were actually straight up buying votes on a regular basis the prices would likely be much higher. If politicians were admitting to themselves they were selling their vote, a large proportion of them would likely think about the value their vote have in a particular setting and price it accordingly.

Part of the reason it's cheap is because most of the time the politicians in question likely tell themselves they're not being bought, because they're taking donations for access etc. or other things that are sufficiently separate from a direct transfer of money that they too are pricing it based on access rather than on the value of a changed vote, as you suggest.

> Another way to think about it is that if people were actually straight up buying votes on a regular basis the prices would likely be much higher

And as I said earlier, the campaign contributions are window dressing for the rest of it and I gave a concrete example. Families like the Clintons have made massive amounts of money cashing out after office, and secured lucrative sinecures for their daughter while in it.

These people and their families are insanely well off as a result of their work in government, and its not because they legislated or governed in the public interest.

But while I'm sure some of them had that in mind, I think very of them went around thinking "how I vote on this specific piece of legislation will make a difference in how much I make afterwards".

The Clintons is a good example of why that would no sense: Their revenue is effectively diversified enough that it would make very little difference. They're trading off their perceived status and recognition - if they'd pushed policy in a different direction, their revenues would just have come from being popular as speakers etc. with different sets of people, it wouldn't have evaporated. It might have been different, and it is possible they'll have thought about that at times, but it is unlikely that they kept thinking "this will increase/lower our income later" because it's way too abstract how it would influence things.

Yes, I'm sure outright vote-buying happens, but I don't think most lobbying is outright vote buying. That doesn't mean it isn't wrong, but that trying to paint it as outright vote buying rather than paint it as wrong by making the point that disproportionate access is equally bad is counter-productive. Because if you accuse the average politician of outright selling their vote, they'll consider themselves unjustly victimized and just think you're a crank that's totally off the mark.

I'm not overly concerned with hurting a politician's feelings. I am bemused at the idea that someone can observe the last few decades of the capture of the government and major political parties by corporate and oligarch interests and the increasingly lucrative payoffs to these people, and not come to the transparently obvious conclusion that these are commercial relationships.

This is institutionalized and legalized bribery, not just 'access' or 'networking' or whatever euphemism you want to use to couch this in niceties.

Saying "these are commercial relationships" (that we should try to stop) is different from saying "people are outright buying specific votes".

The problem is that people are too often looking at this as if it is the latter, when it usually is the former. That doesn't mean it's not a problem, but it means that attempts to try to address the latter will be totally ineffective, and addressing the former is far harder in general, because the "payoff" can be very tangentially related and non-obvious.

E.g. it can be as tangential as "look at me giving money to this cause over here that I know that you like (wink, wink)". No direct exchange needs to happen. No direct benefit needs to be had then and there - just the acknowledgement that party X will be very grateful were you to listen more carefully to what they say (not even one on one with you, but say, in a committee, or even in PR releases) and understands your interests.

Direct bribes are "easy" to stop in comparison. And so they're the wrong focus. The consequence of shifting focus to more indirect influence is that the only viable solutions to stop this kind of influence is to disperse power of politicians more by weakening their individual influence, and to reduce the powers of potential beneficiaries of there decisions inherent in accumulation of capital. You draw the conclusions.

Politicians feelings doesn't come into it - nothing you try to do to stop this by regulating their interactions with business will have any real effect.

> Families like the Clintons have made massive amounts of money cashing out after office

No need to look into the past for examples. The current administration isn't even waiting until they are out of office to cash out.

I'd like to see a readout of these oh-so-convincing arguments.

I think we caught a glimpse of what lobbyists are telling senators when Ted "Series of Tubes" Stevens sloppily repeated the explanation of the internet he was fed.

(To head off the argument: I agree that the "series of tubes" part itself was correct; the problem was the lacking understanding of the relationship between "data transfer has a cost" and "why net neutrality is bad". Also the dubious anecdote about intern emails. "Series of tubes" is just the label for cluster of confusions, not the part he got wrong.)

> No one is evil stuff just breaks.

Are you implying here that the problem can't be fixed or ameliorated?

> buying a $10,000 plate at this donor dinner gets you a sit down with the Senator

What if there were no donor dinners because campaigns were limited to a set amount of public funds?

>> No one is evil stuff just breaks. >Are you implying here that the problem can't be fixed or ameliorated?

I sure hope we can find a way to fix it.

>> buying a $10,000 plate at this donor dinner gets you a sit down with the Senator

>What if there were no donor dinners because campaigns were limited to a set amount of public funds?

I think that would be a pretty good start. Enough so that I spent several years working on getting my state to join the call for a constitutional convention to overturn Citizens United and establish more fairly funded elections.

Thanks, I hope you keep working toward those goals!

> Neal, received $16,000 in contributions from the two companies in the last two election cycles[.]

This statement is false. If you look at Open Secrets, $16,000 lines up exactly with what H&R Block and Intuit employees donated to Neal in 2016 and 2018. H&R Block and Intuit have tens of thousands of employees--it's not surprising that many donated to a Democrat with a high-ranking committee position.

Fun fact: By the article's parlance "Google" gave more to Neal in 2018 than Intuit. Gasp--Google must be in on the tax filing scam too!

What they receive is only part of the calculation.

What your opponent will receive in the next election or primary is a bigger issue. And that implied stick is much cheaper than giving out carrots all the time.

Those numbers sound about right. It is surprisingly cheap to influence our Representatives and Senators.

Maybe it would be within range of a decent crowdsourcing campaign to raise the amount of cash to buy enough influence and lobbying to move the needle on things that are in the public interest, like this issue.

Ugh. If only more of our Representatives and Senators actually worked for the people, rather than for whomever promises them the most money...

> Maybe it would be within range of a decent crowdsourcing campaign to raise the amount of cash to buy enough influence and lobbying to move the needle on things that are in the public interest

This is what PACs and nonprofits do. If you want to participate, there is probably already at least one for whatever issue you care about.

$16k to sell out? Don't these people raise millions?

Big donors are a high return-on-time for busy politicians. I donated the max (2*$2700) to a few candidates during the previous midterm elections, and was (naively) surprised to be invited to have brief 1:1 meetings with each of them. Money speaks depressingly loudly in politics. Corporations have to go through PACs, but many have their own (Intuit has their "21st Century Leadership Fund" PAC, which you can view here:


Not all candidates accept PAC funds, but enough do.

It's disheartening.

> Money speaks depressingly loudly in politics.

I don't know what's disheartening about it. Here in D.C., Democrats are in an ideological war with Republicans. Money is necessary to fuel the war machine: https://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015.... Of course they want to get larger donors more involved.

The problem is exactly what you describe, the "war machine." Elections are in the public interest and should be solely publicly funded. Collect taxes for it, distribute it directly to candidates evenly, via some set model. You can look to Canada's system as a basis, although we do still allow some limited private contributions (which I disapprove of, but ~20% of total funding) [1].

That's all they should be allowed to spend. Then they use that money to make their case to the people on merit. No PACs, no contributions, no lobbyists, and equal access to airtime. This eliminates pay-to-play or at least criminalizes it.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federal_political_financing_in...

The US is fundamentally more adversarial than other developed countries. Our political system reflects that. The Canadian way is one way to do it, but I don’t see why our way is fundamentally wrong.

Also this focus on the “merits” is misguided. The US is too big and diverse for votes to correspond very well to actual policies. By the time you get all the stakeholders on board with something the final result won’t appear anything like the original proposal. So we place a much higher emphasis on people, personality, and party than policy.

I’ll give you a concrete example of this: immigration. Canada is much less divided on immigration than the US. Here, you have one side calling immigrants criminals, and the other side calling for open accommodation of hundreds of thousands of low-skill immigrants illegally crossing the border each year. By contrast, Canada’s right is less vitriolic, but it’s left is also far less idealistic. Even Trudeau generally seems to support Canada’s point-based immigration system, which puts a heavy emphasis on English skills and education. That system would be m demonized as regressive and racist were Republicans to propose it here.

So what good does it do to vote for policy here in the US? You think anyone will hash out an immigration policy that makes both sides happy? No. So instead we raise money to go to war and try to bury the other side.

Nothing about my proposed model is eliminates the adversarial nature of politics, or specifies whether people should vote along "merit" or on people/personality/party axis.

What it does is eliminate the ability of private individuals and companies to purchase time with a candidate. If you allow that, the candidate then will do what you want so they will get money for the next election cycle. It's just bribery with extra steps.

If they know they're going to get money for the next election regardless, no more or less than their opponent, they can focus on things that will improve the lives of Americans (their only donors now) and not private entities.

To your point, Canadians don't have to deal with much illegal immigration (except 18,000 [0.05% of the Canadian population] annually that cross into Canada from the US to escape the Trump administration with smugglers paid $4000USD+ to bring people up North. Many lose limbs and fingers and toes in the winter [1, 2] -- 1 in every 1000 Canadians is now an illegal immigrant who fled America). That's not really relevant to campaign finance, though, it's just horrifying.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/jul/24/canada-vermo...

[2] https://www.theglobeandmail.com/politics/article-asylum-seek...

Its disheartening in the same way that many other oligarchic trends in the US are: it creates an easy pathway for those with money to ensure that they retain an (unfair) advantage, even when it comes at the cost of something that would save millions of hours of aggragate work and unnecessary expense.

If the marginal cost is zero of raising, raise all the amounts

Not really, no! Most national elections sure, but I think most congressional races aren't nearly as expensive.

As of a few years ago, the average cost for a winning campaign for the House of Representatives was about $1.5M. The average cost for a winning Senate campaign was a bit over $10M.

Wow, so this means someone could theoretically buy out the House for <$1b?

Sure, if you think it's that easy. Problem is that there are lots and lots of examples of people spending ridiculous amounts of money in politics trying to sway an election, and losing anyway.

As noted by the economist Luigi Zingales in his book "A Capitalism for the People", companies that are receiving subsidies (or other favorable treatment from the government) are highly incentivized to keep receiving those subsidies. For example, if the tax preparation industry stands to lose $100 million if e-file becomes free, they will lobby up to that amount to retain the status quo.

The problem is that those who wish to reform the status quo are not as well funded or financially incentivized to create a counter-lobby. Ordinary citizens, who would benefit the most from making e-file free, would have to form a counter-lobby group and put up at least $6 million in order to have the same level of access as the tax preparation companies.

Zingales' proposed solution is to do away with subsidies and special treatment for individual companies, as they inevitably lead to cronyism.

Also add to that: I suspect most people in Congress would need to hire an accountant anyway so it would benefit them in the least

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