The greatest problem in Washington is not polarization but lying. The legislative machinery has ground to a halt not because of the great divide between liberals and conservatives but because of the great divide between the lobbyists and the people. The lobbyists want things that are against the public interest, and they use lies and secrecy to try to win. The collapse of the Obamacare repeal demonstrates the limits of this corruption.
There are four great lobbies in Washington: big oil, Wall Street, the military-industrial complex, and big health care. These industries spend billions of dollars a year to control the levers of power in their narrow self-interest. Most of what they favor runs against the broad public interest. In total, the four sectors spent around $1.5 billion in lobbying and another $1.5 billion in campaign financing in 2016, according to OpenSecrets.org.
Big oil wants to continue oil and gas fracking and deep sea drilling even though it pollutes the environment and causes global warming. Wall Street wants to make huge fees from financial speculation even though this frenzied activity has no social value. The military-industrial complex wants to build and sell weapons systems even though it makes war much more likely. Big health care wants to block every form of cost control despite the wildly overpriced health care system. Corporate lobbies want to cut taxes despite a large and growing budget deficit.
On every issue, the dominant reality is not public polarization but broad public consensus. It is true that our diverse country has inevitable divisions, but most often with 60-to-40 percent or 70-to-30 percent public majorities, not 50-50 deadlocks. Most Americans recognize the priority of renewable energy over fossil fuels. They feel many corporations do not pay their fair share of taxes. They oppose the perpetual wars that Washington wages in our name. And they want medical costs kept down.
What is a lobbyist to do to overcome public opinion? Part of the answer is propaganda: Oil does not cause global warming; sky-high drug prices lead to innovation, not destitution; tax cuts pay for themselves. We’ve heard these lies for decades now.
When the lies fail, which they tend do in an open society, the lobbyists resort to secrecy and subterfuge. The health care lobby wrote the key provision to block Medicare from negotiating drug prices literally in the middle of the night of the vote on Medicare Part D, in 2003.
The attempt by President Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan, and majority leader Mitch McConnell to pass the Obamacare repeal was especially sordid. The aim was to cut health benefits rather than to control health costs. The poor and the elderly would have suffered. The game plan was to rush the repeal to adoption without a moment of public hearings, a word of expert testimony, or a piece of objective analysis.
Yet the truth intruded. The Republicans could not stop the nonpartisan reports by the Congressional Budget Office that their nasty draft legislation would leave 22 million more people uninsured by 2026. Governors, mayors, and civic groups weighed in. A few brave Republicans, led by Senator Susan Collins of Maine, broke ranks.
So far, the lobbyists’ lies have been mostly stymied. America’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, pushed by big oil, has been met with stony resistance by the rest of the world, and by states and cities within the United States. Other attempts at deregulation are stuck in the courts.
Yet one more lobbying push is on the way. The corporate lobbies are determined to cut taxes despite large budget deficits. The winners would be the superrich and the losers would be today’s millennials, who would inherit a mountain of public debt. Again, Trump, Ryan, and McConnell are likely to attempt to push this through without hearings or debate.
If we are vigilant, the truth will come out, the voters will beat the special interests, tax breaks for the rich will be defeated, and the center will hold.
Jeffrey D. Sachs is University Professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, and author of “The Age of Sustainable Development.”