The Cost of Democracy?

Happy Uncle Sam with WalletWe hear a lot about lobbyists and special interest money in South Carolina politics but no one ever seems to talk about the hard numbers. So, here are a few numbers gleaned from 2011 lobbyist reports that are publicly available online at the SC Ethics Commission web site.

Read ‘em and weep.

SC has 542 registered lobbyists, and 545 lobbyist principals (the people who pay the lobbyist)

  • there are 822 different lobbying contracts, often with one principal hiring multiple lobbyists
  • 12 state agencies have lobbyists, mostly colleges and universities
  • 36 separate contracts is the largest number of contracts for one lobbyist
  • $11,118 is the average size of a lobbyist contract
  • $142,000 is the biggest single lobbying contract from a single principal
  • 22 lobbyists make over $100,000 a year in direct lobbying contracts alone
  • $525,802 is the largest amount paid in various contracts to a single lobbyist
  • $11,385,031 is the total paid to lobbyists in 2011 for lobbying contracts
  • $12,113,965 is the total of lobbyist payments, including contracts and expenses
  • $71,258 per legislator is the total lobbying cost per legislator, for 124 Representatives and 46 Senators

Who are these lobbyists? Many are former legislators, current and former political office holders and their families, former staff, and lots and lots of lawyers. And not all these ‘good ole boys’ are boys, of course ; there are many highly paid women lobbyists as well.

It would be easy to go on a rant and write extensively about the evils of lobbyists and how they have corrupted our political system, but I won’t. I’ll let the above numbers speak for themselves.

A few final points. First, these are just the reported lobbying expenses. They do not include the campaign contributions that these lobbyists ‘direct’ to the legislators through corporate and individual contributions from the lobbyist principals or the related special interest political action committees’ contributions.

Secondly, these amounts do not include any fees or consulting contracts that special interest groups and lobbyist principals pay directly to the legislators for ‘professional services.’

Third, not every lobbyist and lobbyist principal is a ‘special interest bad guy.’ There are many good businesses, organizations, non-profit groups and others that are advocating for legitimate and beneficial public policy goals. We should all look closely at these people and their issues and determine for ourselves who is working for the benefit of all of the people of South Carolina and who is working to benefit only themselves.

Fourth, I’m not a professional researcher so I would encourage others – the media, academics and citizens – to check my facts and my math, but more importantly, to look for themselves at who is paying whom in South Carolina’s rotten political system.

All of this information was dug up with just a couple of hours of research on my home computer. There is a lot more research that needs to be done to shine a light on the grubby world of money and politics in South Carolina. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said in 1913, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” It still is.

Like many South Carolinian’s, I’ve come to believe that our government is broken and our politics is corrupt. In fact, I believe that our government is broken because our politics is corrupt, and that it will only be cleaned up when we know the truth about who is paying whom and what they are buying. Only then will we be able to demand the kind of root-and-branch reform that our malignant political culture so desperately needs.

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Editor's note: This column first appeared at the SCNewsExchange.com. Photo of smiling, greedy, Uncle Sam was licensed by LikeTheDew.com on iStock.com © Todd Keith - yes, LikeTheDew.com actually pays for photos and is a good reason to donate to the Dew so we can keep providing such great stories.
Phil Noble

Phil Noble

Phil Noble is a businessman from Charleston and he currently serves as President of the South Carolina New Democrats, an independent reform group started by former Gov. Richard Riley. Noble is one of the leading experts in the US and internationally on the Internet and politics. Noble is the founder of PoliticsOnline and its affiliated company Phil Noble & Associates, an international public affairs consulting firm. Noble is a veteran of over 300 political campaigns and public affairs projects in 40 states and 30 countries. He has worked to elect the head of state in 15 countries.