How Congress Really Works

The discussion in Washington about the recent filibuster “deal” seems to center on the perception that Senate “moderates” have reasserted themselves. This is a nice, pleasant storyline — but it doesn’t seem to be a very accurate assessment of how Washington politics really works. In reality, congressional business is ultimately steered by how involved corporate America is in a given debate.

For instance, on the filibuster issue, the Washington Post noted that “one powerful group largely sitting out the fight is corporate America.” Business leaders were “wary of a strife-torn Senate killing pro-business items.” Thus, America gets a compromise.

On tax reform, it is the same dynamic. After the election, the New York Times published a report about social conservatives who were raising questions about President Bush’s proposal to flatten the tax system. Yet, because corporate America backed the idea, Bush is pressing forward.

We even see this dynamic on stem cell research. A large majority in the House supported more stem cell research — defying the religious right’s opposition. Why? Because the big drug companies and biotech firms desperately wanted the bill to pass.


To be sure, some of these examples may result in good outcomes. But the fundamental problem remains that corporate America is still very much calling all the shots in Washington. For every example of how this dynamic can create good results, there are scores of examples where the results are bad (passing the bankruptcy bill, passing the class action bill, voting down a minimum wage increase, just to name a few recent ones). Though the media may continue to frame politics as a “moderate” vs. “liberals/conservatives” battle, congressional action and inaction is primarily the result of what’s bought and sold by big money.