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The US government is drowning in lobbyist that undermine the democratic power of the people in favor of wealthy corporations/oligarchs. My question is: are there any significantly successful policies that any democratic country has enacted to curb lobbying?

I'm not terribly informed, but the only decent such policy I've heard suggested is "Democracy Dollars" by Andrew Yang. Here, he proposes every citizen gets $100 "Democracy Dollars" which they can only use to donate to politicians of their choice. The theory is that all that money would handily trump what one would otherwise receive through lobbyists, severely weakening lobbying as an effective strategy. That being said, I don't know if this policy has been applied in practice anywhere, so it may only be a theory.

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    Are you asking about paid lobbying? Lobbying is a critical part of a democracy and many of the issue you see are not with the act itself but the money involved and giving that to the people they are trying to influence.
    – Joe W
    May 16 at 15:55
  • 2
    Some countries publicly fund political parties by giving them money for each vote they get. For example the German state pays between 0.86 and 1.04 euro per vote to the party, which is similar to your "democracy dollars" I think. Compared to major American campaigns, this might seem very little money, but in practice this is a major part of party funding in Germany. Generally more important than donations by wealthy individuals or corporations. Source: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – Simon
    May 19 at 16:50

11 Answers 11

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  1. Define good lobbying and bad lobbying.
    That's a major challenge. You don't want a paid lobbyist for big oil or the arms industry to visit representatives and grease their palms, but you you do want the spokesperson for the local grassroots initiative to visit representatives and get heard. But if that grassroots initiative is connected with other grassroots initiatives, and if they give a modest salary to their spokesperson, wouldn't the same rules apply? Or do you only want only lobbyists who are rich enough to take 'unpaid' time off for lobbying? The answer requires well-thought-out definitions (see astroturf and gongo).
  2. Define workable transparency rules.
    Are you aware of the foreign agent registration acts in the US and Russia? What was supposed to prevent 'foreign meddling' can be turned into a tool to suppress 'international cooperation' ...
  3. Look at the causes for excessive money requirements.
    This requires a fundamental look at the political institutions, not just adding $100 here or there on the margins.
    If you look at it in a certain way, a member of the US House of Representatives averages one election per year (counting primaries as a separate election). Half of those elections are against members of the same party, so they can't count on the party establishment for experienced staffers, etc. They have to build their own campaign HQ. And that takes money.
    Or you argue that the primary system is really important because it weakens the influence of the party machine. With what is effectively a two-party system, you need wide-open primaries to keep things alive.
    So if you want more cohesive parties, do you need to go for proportional representation? But then PR can lead to a splintering of the political landscape, and the inability to find a clear and stable majority.
    I'm not saying that I know a miracle cure, or even that there is one, but think about causes, not just symptoms.
  4. Think carefully before you restrict freedom of speech.
    Most countries have many restrictions on what can be said when and where. Under oath. As a government employee. Next to a polling station. Within sight of a polling station. While a polling station is open. About individuals who are public figures. About individuals who are not public figures. The ones in the own country often appear natural, so natural that they don't appear to be restrictions at all, just common sense.
    Saying "candidate X is a bad candidate" is a very important right. For the poor and the rich. Even if the rich can buy billboards and the poor can only shout it out.
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    This is a very thoughtful answer, but it still leaves me wondering "What is a successfully policy against lobbying in a democratic country?" Are there any actual examples? (maybe not!)
    – uhoh
    May 16 at 19:24
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    @uhoh, reasonable transparency about lobbyists and their meetings (wouldn't do if a representative has to report meeting a whistle-blower), high transparency about campaign donations, high transparency about non-campaign political advertising.
    – o.m.
    May 16 at 20:08
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    This is a good answer, but for a different question than asked. This addresses “What would such a policy have to take into consideration?” — but the OP’s question is “are there any significantly successful [such] policies that any democratic country has enacted”, which this answer doesn’t touch on at all. May 17 at 7:09
  • 5
    "You don't want a paid lobbyist for big oil or the arms industry to visit representatives and grease their palms, but you do want the spokesperson for the local grassroots initiative to visit representatives and get heard" - you're comparing bribery with non-bribery, but you seem to be acting as if it's hard to differentiate those things for other reasons. Obviously I would object to bribery, but I don't see an inherent problem with a lobbyist (paid or not, big oil or grassroots) speaking to a representative.
    – NotThatGuy
    May 17 at 8:35
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    @NotThatGuy Quite often it is difficult to differentiate. Remember, these lobbyists are often making what are de jure donations, there is zero obligation for the recipient political party to do anything the lobbyist asks or suggests to them. The obvious implication is that if they don't give a little quid pro quo, said donation will not be given in future. May 17 at 12:52
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First, a bit of math re. your $100 per person. Assuming 170m (number of registered US voters) x $100, you get $17B out of it. Lotsa money, for sure, except that 2020 POTUS elections cost $14B, so that doesn't entirely crowd out the current donation structure, even if you heroically assume that every person will disburse their entire $100 allowance.

Second, one way to limit not so much lobbying as the influence lobbying has on politicians, is to make campaign donations (or auxiliary financial support) illegal for whole classes of donors, to wit, corporations and unions. Then add limits to individual contributions so that rich donors do not crowd out everyone else.

This is what British Columbia did in Canada. In the context of the US doing so might be problematic because SCOTUS has ruled donations are protected by the First Amendment (or something to that effect, roughly, "SCOTUS is concerned about Free Speech"). But that's definitely where I would channel efforts and it handily avoids having to make judgment calls about good vs bad, as correctly flagged in o.m's answer.

Some other places fund political parties out of public funds, but that has its own challenges as well.

Third, you might also, besides donations, limit how easily politicians and regulators can segue into the private sector after a stint in government. Japan for example has a long traditions of public servants getting industry jobs after they retire, something which isn't all that conducive to good governance.

p.s. As to why removing lobbying itself (i.e. chatting to your representative, as opposed to supporting their campaign financially - either by donations or promoting their views at election time) isn't all that desirable, see Reirab's answer

p.p.s. The British Columbia case is only an example of a possible solution - the change is too recent to really tell how it has affected politicians' decision making.

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The short answer is: There aren't any successful policies against lobbying (in general) in a functional representative democracy.

Lobbying is quite literally just people trying to influence their elected representatives to vote in a particular way on matters they care about. This is an essential feature of democracy; it is not a bug. When you send an e-mail to one of your elected representatives about a particular issue, that is lobbying. Protesting/demonstrating outside their office would also be a form of lobbying, for example. Even an expert group on some particular matter attempting to educate elected representatives to inform the creation or modification of some legislation is a form of lobbying.

Without the ability of the people to petition their elected representatives on issues they care about, you simply do not have a functional representative democracy at all. The founders of the United States, for example, considered this to be so important that enshrining this ability in very-difficult-to-change law was literally part of the very first amendment to the U.S. Constitution, passed alongside the Constitution itself.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

-- First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution

Of course, corrupt lobbying is another matter entirely. This would be things like quid pro quo trades, such as "Vote this way and I'll donate $X to your campaign, or give you free use of my vacation home/some rides in my private jet, or take you to my private island, etc."

There are some normal ways to combat this:

  • Criminal laws against it (for example, 18 USC 201 in the U.S.)

  • The ability to expel elected representatives from their positions upon evidence of such behavior (such as provided for in Article I, Section 5, paragraph 2 of the U.S. Constitution.)

  • Things like mandatory financial disclosure laws for elected representatives can help to combat corrupt lobbying by making it more difficult to cover up.

  • Campaign contribution limits on donations from a particular entity (to a point that donation from a particular person or organization aren't especially relevant.)

All of those strategies have been useful at combatting corrupt lobbying in the past (though none completely eliminate it.)

The latter one can be at least somewhat controversial from a freedom of speech standpoint (because the whole point of campaign contributions is funding political speech,) but have been justified on the grounds of reducing opportunities for "pay-to-play" politics of exchanging campaign donations from lobbyists (whether individuals or organizations) for votes on a particular issue. Basically, the thought there is "Make the limit from an individual entity low enough that it isn't worth the risk of getting caught."

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  • The key reasoning for limits on donation for a particular entity is the idea that the ability to lobby/ have ones ideas heard should not be proportional to wealth but equally distributed among all voters. For similar reasons donating might be restricted to natural people and citizens because only those are allowed to vote and hence need to represented in a democracy. Different democratic countries reached different conclusions on this issue.
    – quarague
    May 18 at 20:10
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    I am an outside watcher, but IMO it is pretty clear what OP is talking about when saying "lobbying": the fact that U.S. politicians do get a lot of money from relatively few sources, and are spending a lot of time procuring those sources, and are extremely likely at least partly bound by their interests (even if it's not quid-pro-quo in the sense that they need to make sure to get more money for the next election). Insofar I feel the answer, while at its core true, is a little bit too apologetic. It has nothing to do with average joe sending a mail to their representative...
    – AnoE
    May 19 at 8:47
  • @AnoE "the fact that U.S. politicians do get a lot of money from relatively few sources" The extent to which this is actually true is often significantly exaggerated, though, but that's a different question. At any rate, lobbying and campaign finance are two different things, which are only tangentially related, and part of the purpose of the answer was clarifying the difference.
    – reirab
    May 19 at 15:11
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There are a few policies, mostly based on transparency, that reduce lobbying somewhat and make it harder, but they all restrict some freedom or force politicians to make information public that would normally be considered private.

  • One can make it mandatory for elected politicians to make all their income publicly available. It is a convention for US presidents to make their tax returns public (although this convention can be ignored, see Donald Trump). German members of parliament need to register all income above a threshold of a few thousand euros. If people are aware that a certain politician is receiving consulting fees from a big oil company (or alternatively from Greenpeace) this may influence their chances for (re-)election.
  • One can make restrictions on which entities are allowed to donate to political parties (all legal persons versus only natural persons, only citizens), whether there are limits to the donations and one can request that the parties make all received donations public. One can also give political parties some public financing to make them less dependent on donations (note that in practice it is much easier to collect a few very large donations that a lot of small ones).
  • One can request that all lobby organizations formally register as such and that politicians make public if they met with lobby organizations.
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    I see no problem with forcing politicians to be more open than the average citizen. They wield far more power than the average citizen, they should be kept under scrutiny.
    – KeizerHarm
    May 17 at 14:18
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    @KeizerHarm I agree with you. I'm just saying that there are pros and cons.
    – quarague
    May 17 at 14:46
  • If people are aware that a certain politicians is for example receiving consulting fees from a big oil company (or alternatively from Greenpeace) this may influence their chances for (re-)election. - This might be the case if people voted for politicians, but actually they vote for parties.
    – Haukinger
    May 18 at 20:15
  • @Haukinger - perhaps you vote only based on party, but not everybody does. In point of fact, many don't, otherwise there would not be turnover in which party was in control of the House or Senate on a somewhat regular basis.
    – Jon Custer
    May 19 at 13:37
  • @JonCuster here in Germany, one may only vote for the party. While there are votes for candidates on paper, they're meaningless.
    – Haukinger
    May 19 at 13:54
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Probably Not

Problems with Alternatives

I definitely recommend watching the video Why Political Lobbying is Allowed & Encouraged. Like in o.m.'s answer, he mentions some of the problems with restricting lobbying.

He also lists three alternatives to "let people fund whoever they want" and points out that they all have major problems as well:

  1. Have the government fund the candidates:
    • if money given based on some criteria for legitimacy: can lead to one party taking control (only funding their own candidates)
    • funding all candidates equally: allows a lot of non-serious candidates (who may only be in it for the money)
  2. Only allowing candidates to fund themselves
    • only allows the richest to run
  3. Not allowing funding of political candidates at all
    • goes against free speech: doesn't allow people to support candidates they like
    • favors people who are already famous: incumbent lawmakers and celebrities (and I doubt we really want more celebrities running for office)

"Democracy Dollars"

I'll confess that "democracy dollars" isn't something I have heard of before and haven't done much research about. Having each citizen fund the candidates doesn't really solve much of anything. Ordinary people will only fund who they have heard of, so this seems biased towards incumbents and celebrities (much like #3 above).

Besides, in the United States, we already have a system where everyone gets an equal chance to support the candidates they want-- it's called voting. And that hasn't done a very good job of stopping lobbying.

A Possible Solution

Also consider that lobbyists-- this annoying race of lobbyists-- cannot exist in a municipality or small region. ... By influencing one single decision or regulation in Brussels, a single lobbyist gets a large bang. It is a much larger payoff (at a low cost) than with municipalities, which would require armies of lobbyists trying to convince people while embedded in their communities.

(Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile, pg. 89-90)

This is the only good solution I've seen offered to the lobbying issue. The more bottom-up and less centralized a government is, the harder it is to manipulate and control.

A quick google search says there are over 19,000 cities in the United States currently. The US Senate, by design, has 100 members. It would be much harder to control the US at the city level than at the federal one. (The above quote is from a section on the stability of Switzerland, if you want a more concrete example)

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  • Thank you for the great video recommendation and answer! I agree that decentralized/distributed government is a good theoretical solution.
    – chausies
    May 18 at 13:56
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Because of the problems of differentiating between "good" and "bad" lobbiysm, regulating based upon such differentiations and having the government basically police itself, which have been covered by several answers here, full transparency policies tend to be the most promising solution, albeit with a certain caveat:
Their effectivness relies on a functioning press as well as an interested and active electorate. I dont see that as a big caveat though, because in the absence of both you are doomed anyway in terms of corruption and probably your republic in general...

To give an example:
In Germany there is no upper limit to how much money both natural and legal persons can contribute to political parties.
Contributions above 10.000 Euros however have to be reported in the party's yearly statement of account and contributions above 50.000 Euros have to be immediately reported to the president of the Bundestag (federal legislative chamber) and are published just as quickly on the homepage of the Bundestag.

Another idea is that of a lobby register, which would basically act as a database gathering information on lobbyist identies, goals, backers, actions etc.
There was actually a big demand here in Germany for exactly that policy idea, but it was constantly stalled by exactly those actors, that have had some serious issues with regard to lobbying and party contributions, which indicates, that it would probably be an effective policy.

The idea of full transparency policies is that both the press and the public are given access to a full and transparent account of who is contributing how much money to which party and lobbying for which policy in the interest of who, so that they then can decide for themselves what is a problem, conflict of interest or outright corruption, thereby circumventing the problem of having to define what constitutes good or bad lobbyism and the other already mentioned problems.

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Nobody have mentioned Citizen United yet even though USA was mentioned in the question.

Other countries don't consider campaign money "Freedom of speech" and specifically for USA then something would have to be done to reverse it.

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  • Citizens United wasn't really about lobbying at all, which is probably why it wasn't mentioned. It's about the ability of individuals and organizations to use their personal funds to engage in political speech (directed at voters, not elected officials,) separate from the actual campaigns of people running for office (i.e. it's not about donations to candidates.) Honestly, I don't know how that could reasonably not be construed to be a matter of freedom of speech. It's literally exactly about the ability to engage in speech.
    – reirab
    May 18 at 14:57
  • @reirab To be fair, the practical difference between donating money to a politician's campaign and paying for ads to either promote their views or attack their opponents' at election time seems rather subtle ;-) But at least this elucidates the rather aggressive comments previously made on my answer when I apparently did not sufficiently dig into details about Citizen United. Point is: there may be legal differences but both forms of spending will elicit favorable treatment from your elected representative that go beyond just what one would expect from just "informing" said representative. May 18 at 18:48
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica Yeah, that's fair, though the main difference (and the one of legal importance in this particular case) is who is in control of the speech. If the politician or people in their campaign are directing it, then it's subject to campaign contribution limits. Though, really, even that isn't lobbying, per se. Related, but not the same thing. When it isn't directed by the politician or their campaign, though, then it's literally just someone speaking their political views, the protection of which was very deliberate and explicit in the First Amendment.
    – reirab
    May 18 at 18:56
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This is more of a frame challenge than a direct answer, but I think your question touches on a common misconception about lobbying. When you see a report that Vandelay Industries spent $17M lobbying Congress this year, that doesn't mean that they gave $17M to politicians or their campaigns. They may not have actually given anything at all to politicians.

The big money gets paid to lobbying firms, who operate somewhat like a law firm. They charge clients to perform services like doing research on legislation, finding expert witnesses, testifying in hearings, presenting information to politicians, running media campaigns, etc. This article, while several years old, gives an interesting overview of the wide scope of things that a lobbying firm does and touches on how lobbying reform legislation has changed things over the years. A firm might have a small team of skilled specialists working full-time for a certain client, and those billable hours add up extremely quickly. One of the lobbyists interviewed said that lobbying was "about communication, not favors or hand outs".

With all that in mind, the link between lobbying spending and government corruption is a lot weaker than many people think. It's not a direct funnel into a politician's pocket (at least not under current laws), so limiting lobbying wouldn't have the sort of impact that you're thinking of. There are still some ways that it can indirectly cause problems, but those are all separate issues that go beyond the scope of lobbying.

One example is that politicians very frequently work on laws governing subjects that they don't have much knowledge of. They typically have degrees in law or political science so when a bill on internet privacy or wildlife management comes up, they rely on subject-matter experts (which can be provided by lobbyists) to educate them with enough information to make a decision. Intense lobbying can mean that officials primarily see only one side of an issue. This potential problem is primarily remedied by lobbyists working on the other side of the issue, whether that's for a corporation, a citizen's group, or a non-profit organization. Congress will also invite experts to testify on various issues, allowing them to solicit a wide range of opinions. If you see a subject being discussed and feel like a certain viewpoint is not represented, you can directly lobby Congress yourself. Call your representatives, send a letter, etc. Even if you don't talk to them directly, they'll know that X number of people called about some issue and that alone can be enough for them to solicit more viewpoints.

Another example: It's not uncommon for a politician to "retire" and then get a lucrative job as a lobbyist. Since they worked in government for a long time, they can get things accomplished much more effectively than an outsider. Need to kill that new highway project? They can tell you what lines of argument will or will not be persuasive, they'll know exactly who to go to to get the reports and data that you need, and they'll know which congressmen will either support your cause or may turn supportive if presented with the facts. An outsider may have to stumble around for months trying to figure all of this stuff out, and can have trouble even getting on a congressman's schedule in the first place. Having former government officials on your side can be a massive advantage. It's not directly a corrupting influence, though, because they no longer have any direct power or role in government. You're paying them for their knowledge and experience, just like you would an experienced lobbyist who never held any government position. Where it becomes a problem is when it transcends legitimate lobbying. The retired official might be able to pressure someone who owes them a favor to change their vote on something. A trade industry group might insinuate that they'll hire a congressman as their lobbyist later if they help pass the laws that they want. The official might be able to use classified information that isn't supposed to be available to outsiders. These are all separate issues that would exist in a world without lobbying, though. Most of those are already illegal (but hard to prove). As much as this can be caused by corruption, it's more a symptom of a government that is so large and complex that the only way to navigate it efficiently is to have many years of experience inside of it.

Lobbyists used to use money to influence officials through elaborate travel and entertainment. A lobbyist in the article linked above said

“Many years ago I actually had personal [Portland Trailblazers] tickets, and when legislators were able to accept invitations to dinner and a game I did take them,” Conkling said. “But the legislature changed those rules, and as a general rule we don’t entertain legislators at all.” He also does not have any personal lobbying spending reported this year.

Now, when a legislator meets with a lobbyist for a meal, they pay separately.

Most places have already outlawed this type of thinly-veiled bribery. It was common for many years, however, and is one reason that the term "lobbyist" has such a bad connotation.

There are many other ways that wealthy individuals can have a (much larger, IMO) corrupting influence on politicians (PACs, excessive speaking fees, insider trading, giving lucrative "jobs" to an official's friends or family members, etc.) but those are unrelated to lobbying and out of scope for this question.

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The United States can adopt some of the policies used by other countries where lobbying power is lower and the strongly correlated corruption perception index is higher (high = less corruption):

  • Public funding of parties.
  • Equal broadcasting time, provided free of charge.
  • Open government.

The countries at the top of the corruption perception index (those with the lowest corruption and the least lobbying power) are Denmark, Finland and New Zealand (ranked 1-3). Compare this to the United States, ranked 27, after Uruguay, United Arab Emirates and Bhutan.

REFERENCES:

corruption perception index 1

corruption perception index 2

Corruption Perception Index, 2021: https://www.transparency.org/en/cpi/2021/index/dnk


Denmark: There are provisions for the public funding of political parties and candidates. Funding is allocated to parties that have participated in the most recently held general election. Parties may use this funding to support their political work. Candidates can receive grants based on the number of votes received. All parties are given equal time broadcasting time which is provided free of charge.

European Public Accountability Mechanisms - Denmark: https://europam.eu/?module=country-profile&country=Denmark


Finland: There are a number of limits on the private income of political parties and candidates. [...] the law clarifies that a candidate, a candidate support group, and any other entity acting exclusively to support the candidate, may not receive any support that can not be clarified. There are also limits in place for the amount of donations that can be received.

Parties are allowed to receive grants from the state budget to finance the party’s public activities as specified in the rules and regulations and the party programme. The grant is allocated according to the number of seats and percentage of votes won in the previous election. There are no subsidies for media use but there is tax relief on certain donations available.

European Public Accountability Mechanisms - Finland: https://europam.eu/?module=country-profile&country=Finland


For the umpteenth year running, the top seven countries in the Corruption Perceptions Index include the four Nordic nations of Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Norway with Iceland close by. This is due to the long history of open government, including the principle of publicness and related access to information laws. Not only do they score highly in international barometers, but the Nordic countries also promote openness, transparency and the rule of law globally. Since the accession of Sweden and Finland to the EU in the mid 1990s, the Nordic countries have worked to raise awareness of the issue of transparency, and Nordic fingerprints can be detected in all EU transparency reforms.

The Puzzle of Non-Regulated Nordic Countries, by Emilia Korkea-aho: https://sites.google.com/view/regulating-lobbying/home/work-of-colleagues/lobbying-regulation-in-the-north

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Money and Power Will Always Find Each Other

Lobbyists petition the legislature for favors. As long as the cost of lobbying for these favors is less than the value of these favors, they'll have their offices in the capital, and they will always find ways around the restrictions. Most importantly, there is the very real possibility that whoever is entrusted to enforce these restrictions will do so in a selective manner.

In the US, restrictions on lobbying have to pass Constitutional muster, especially in light of the First Amendment, which among other things states that the people have the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

The only real solution is to reduce the authority of the legislature to grant the favors sought by lobbyists. In the US, that would require an amendment to the US Constitution substantially reducing the powers of Congress.

Sadly, I don't see the Congress going along willingly and I don't see the other people who could bring it about having the will to get it done.

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Money is not enough

Politicians don't need only money, they need visibility, they need attention by the media and most of the media is controlled by financial institutions, hedge funds and corporations. Paid advertising is much less effective than what people are led to believe, the notoriety of the politicians depends on news, commentaries and interviews. The scheme suggested in the question would not work because money is not the only currency behind bribery.

Mitigation strategy

As of today there is no effective policy against lobbing. The only way to mitigate the problem is transparency. But not just on the politician income as suggested in other questions because a lot of the bribery is paid in services, not directly in money, and it is difficult to trace.

It would be better to improve the transparency on the law itself. Most government already publish on their internet sites the new laws. As a side documentations the politicians who draft the law must declare all the lobby contributions. Often the laws are drafted directly by the lobbyists and rubber stamped by the politicians, knowing who wrote what would be quite an improvement over the current situation.

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