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Washington’s revolving dollars

By Mark Hamrick · Bankrate.com
Wednesday, January 22, 2014
Posted: 5 pm ET

Since I work in Washington, one of the questions I get asked all the time is, "What the heck is wrong with those people?!"

And that's if friends choose to use printable language when inquiring about "those people" in Congress, whose approval ratings are stuck in the basement. The question is often posed out of desperation, though not necessarily in a way that seems partial to one political party or the other.

Usually, the best answer that I can muster points to the flood of money that saturates politics.

Campaign money raining down

For the 2012 campaign, both President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney spent more than $1 billion each. Add the money spent by others, and about $7 billion is estimated to have been injected overall into the presidential campaign, according to the Federal Election Commission. Yes, that's $1 spent for every person on the planet, with some left over.

The forecast calls for another downpour of campaign cash this year, with congressional midterm elections on tap. Get ready for the next blitz of repetitive, often negative television ads. In 2012, the average cost of winning a Senate seat was more than $10 million, while winning a House seat cost more than $1.5 million, on average. Both figures were up from the previous election.

Loads of lobbying dollars

Washington isn't only awash in campaign money. There's also that rich river coming from lobbyists. And a new report from the nonprofit, nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation demonstrates that the system is increasingly reliant on lobbyists who are former government employees, so-called "revolving-door lobbyists."

So let's go back to that perennial question about "those people" in Congress and their chronic dysfunction. Does all of the money being spent mean that average Americans can't expect their needs to be met by elected leaders?

"I don't know if I can say if I think that the presence of money in politics is necessarily something that's going to mute the influence of the average American," says Sarah Bryner, research director for the watchdog Center for Responsive Politics. "But, I think it can have a chilling effect."

Some might argue this is not necessarily a modern phenomenon. Decades ago, American humorist Will Rogers lamented: "We have the best Congress money can buy."

As the saying goes, there's a grain of truth in every joke.

What do you think about money in politics? Do you feel that your interests are being adequately represented?

Follow me on Twiter: @Hamrickisms.

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