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The New York Sun

 

In Whose Interest?

March 13, 2006

By Lawrence Mone

PRINTER FRIENDLY

As the mid-term election campaign gears up, Democrats are braying that Republicans have been corrupted by “special interests,” such as big pharma and big oil. But the Democrats throwing these stones live in a glass house. Washington spends more than a trillion taxpayer dollars a year on policies generated by left-wing lobbies that miseducate children, extort businesses, and disempower the poor. The media-stoked claim that Republicans are puppets of “special interests,” while Democrats are champions of “public” interests, is an illusion that America can no longer afford.

Nowhere is this illusion more costly than in the case of the trial lawyers. In 2003, the American Trial Lawyers Association was the third most generous political action committee in the country, controlling $2.8 million. Eighty-nine percent of that cash went to Democrats, making ATLA the largest political action committee contributor to the Democrats. All told, the litigation industry has contributed a staggering $470 million to federal campaigns since 1990.

Excessive litigation continues to grow, undermining American competitiveness in the global economy. Total tort costs exceed $200 billion annually, more than 2% of America’s gross domestic product - a significantly higher percentage than in any other developed nation. Nor is it clear that these large costs bring benefits to consumers. The RAND Institute found that less than half of awarded dollars actually get to plaintiffs, with the rest absorbed by administrative costs and lawyers’ fees. Harvard Law School scholar Kip Viscusi studied states that allow punitive damages versus those that do not and found no difference with regard to safety or environmental performance.

Democratic legislators remain the most enthusiastic allies of the machine that is “Trial Lawyers Inc.” For example, last year when the Class Action Fairness Act went before Congress to limit the ability of trial lawyers to forum-shop their class action lawsuits in plaintiff-friendly jurisdictions, only 50 Democrats out of 214 House members supported the reform effort.

Hard behind the trial lawyers, in terms of power and influence, are the teachers’ unions. A new Web site from the Department of Labor, www.union-reports.dol.gov, shows the combined budgets of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers to be $509 million. That’s only part of the picture; in most state capitals, teachers’ unions state affiliates rank as one of the top lobbying forces, in terms of contributions and political manpower. They’ve used their political clout to block educational reforms in our urban schools where the poorest minority students are currently trapped.

Thanks to the efforts of teacher union lobbying, inflation-adjusted expenditures in education have doubled over the last 30 years while test scores in reading and math have remained flat. The United States spends more per capita on secondary and elementary education than virtually any other developed nation. Yet on an entire array of international standardized tests American students rank near the bottom academically.

Despite these dismal results, the unions have adamantly opposed efforts to bring competition and accountability into the “education industry,” blocking proposals for vouchers, charter schools, and merit pay. Virtually every study conducted of school choice programs in cities like Milwaukee and Cleveland has shown positive academic results. But when Congress recently had the opportunity to vote on a similar program for the failing schools of Washington, D.C., Democrats voted in lockstep with the wishes of the teachers union, with 202 of their 215 House members in opposition.

Finally, while Americans have heard plenty about our so-called “military-industrial complex,” few understand how the Democratic War on Poverty created a “government-poverty complex.” In his book “The New New Left,” Steven Malanga traces the history of this new political force.

Before 1965, most social-services agencies were privately organized and funded, and had little stake in government spending policies. As this industry grew, however, it became a natural ally of the Democratic Party in efforts to increase the size of government. Today, these advocacy groups not only lobby for more government social programs, they effectively run them. It’s in their interest to support expanded government funding, because these advocacy groups’ livelihoods are tied to those funds.

The social-services sector now numbers 3.3 million workers, most of them funded by government. But the $520 billion we spend each year for a myriad of welfare and related human services has had little real impact on poverty. Our safety net has been notable primarily for the propensity of the poor to become entangled in it. Yet when the historic 1996 Welfare Reform Act sought to break the cycle of dependency and move people into the world of work, nearly half of the House Democrats opposed the legislation - even though Bill Clinton was one of its most vocal proponents.

Of course, both our national parties need to form alliances with interest groups. This is in itself neither good nor bad, but simply the way politics works in a representative democracy. Minimizing the economic and social damage that quid-pro-quo policies inflict on citizens ought to be one of the guiding principles in any broad criticism of our system.

For that very reason, if Republicans merit open criticism for their unseemly ties to lobbyists like Jack Abramoff, Democratic special-interests should receive equal scrutiny. As they hurl the charge of “corruption” at Republicans, Democrats continue to elevate the interests of their own lobbies above the interests of the people they claim to serve. Politician, heal thyself.

Original Source: http://www.nysun.com/opinion/in-whose-interest/29026/

 

 
 
 

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