A System of Checks and Imbalances

Today, California is the most populous state in the country with over 36 million people. The state remains the largest market for consumer goods and services. That fact has caused businesses to invest resources to tap this pool of potential customers.


When investment in the private sector was not enough, many went to Sacramento to lobby legislators to create laws and regulations that would give them an advantage in the marketplace. Principal among these lobbyists is the telecommunications giant AT&T.


For much of the history of the United States, lobbyists have played an important role in politics, and today is no different.


Lobbyists contribute millions to the political parties every election and help influence legislation at all levels of government.


Whenever major corporations seek to gain an advantage in a market over their competitors, they often look to the government for help. This has led to the close relationship between many businesses and governments, and California is no different.


Lobbying by corporations, unions and other special interest groups continually shapes California politics and is responsible for many new proposals that benefit certain groups. This can help special interest groups push their agenda into the public arena and it can lead to lucrative business arrangements within the state.


AT&T sought to expand their operations in California and have used corporate lobbying to succeed where business deals have failed.


The company has raised thousands of dollars for members of both parties in Sacramento in an attempt to sway their opinion and influence future legislation. This includes campaign contributions during elections, gifts to individual legislators and sponsoring events like golf tournaments for the assembly.


This has cost the company an estimated $47 million between the years 1999 and 2011 in California alone. This is more than any other corporation spent on lobbying during the same period in California.


AT&T has invested millions into the state in an attempt to increase its share of the telecommunications market in California which is estimated to be worth $10.7 billion according to the California Cable and Television Association.


AT&T is not the only telecommunications corporation that is lobbying in Sacramento. Verizon also has lobbyists in Sacramento and donates to both parties during elections. They have given as much as $2,000 for some individual candidates and have given $1,000 to most other candidates for the California State Assembly and Senate during the 2008 elections. However, they have not been willing to spend as much money in California as AT&T has.


Although corporate donations and lobbying legislators has been a mainstay of American politics, there are critics to the system.


Among them is UC Irvine professor of sociology David Smith. Smith is against the influence of money on politics and believes that it has a negative influence on the workings of government.


“I think one of the problems with this system where money is the ruler is not only does that pull the political system in one direction, you know sort of towards the people with the money and the big corporations that have the money, but also it makes our legislators part-time legislators,” Smith said.


“They’re full-time fundraisers and part-time legislators so they spend hours a day on the phone trying to get people to get them more money.”


The telecommunications companies have used this influence in the past to sponsor bills that are advantageous for them in the state.


In 2006, a bill was proposed in California that would benefit AT&T and allow them more access into the state cable industry.


AT&T spent an estimated $26 million in that year alone in lobbying, advertisements and campaign advertisements to get the bill passed.


Many bills at the local, state and national level favor an interest group including corporations, unions, banks and other groups with access to money. This can potentially reduce the influence of grassroots organizations and individuals who petition their representatives.


“You know we can write letters or send emails to our legislators,” Smith said. “But we don’t have the same kind of access that AT&T does if they give every member of the state assembly and the state Senate at least a thousand bucks.”