Congressional Committee Sizes

In today’s New York Times, Tom Friedman writes:

Our Congress today is a forum for legalized bribery. One consumer group using information from calculates that the financial services industry, including real estate, spent $2.3 billion on federal campaign contributions from 1990 to 2010, which was more than the health care, energy, defense, agriculture and transportation industries combined. Why are there 61 members on the House Committee on Financial Services? So many congressmen want to be in a position to sell votes to Wall Street.

What an interesting proposition: The size of a Congressional committee will be directly related to the availability of campaign contributions and lobbyists. Growing (shrinking) committees are related to increased (decreased) campaign contributions and lobbyists.

This same logic suggests that: The total number of committees and committee memberships will likewise be directly related to the availability of outside funding. As total spending on contributions and lobbyists goes up (down) the number of committees and committee memberships with increase (decrease).

To follow the money, simply follow the ebb and flow of Congressional committees over time. Taken together the propositions above suggest that Congress functions like a market, and not a ballot box.

Washington Initiative 1183

I find the stark differences between the distribution and retailing of alcohol on the one hand, and almost any other consumer product on the other hand, to offer a fascinating commentary about US society. No doubt the contemporary wine and spirits industry remains a potentially interesting, if unwritten, chapter in the history of the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism.

In a previous post, I discussed the bizarre shipping prohibitions that still encumber many wine buyers. Today, my attention was drawn to a Wall Street Journal article on a ballot initiative in Washington state aimed at replacing “hundreds of state-run liquor stores with private retail outlets” while also allowing “retailers to buy liquor directly from distillers and negotiate volume discounts.”

To add to the intrigue, rather than an instance of grassroots mobilization, the initiative is being sponsored primarily by corporate interests. Costco has funded almost the entire “Yes” effort, while the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America have funded almost the entire “No” effort. The State is involved too, seeing privatization as a chance to generate more revenue. As a result, “[i]t isn’t clear whether a consumer buying a bottle of whiskey would see prices go down.”

In other words, no matter who wins the initiative, consumers may not come out ahead, even though their “interests” are allegedly at the heart of the matter. Instead, what appears to be at stake is simply how the liquor pie gets divided. Costco and Washington state want a bigger piece, while the existing wholesalers and retailers are reluctant to give up what they have had since the end of prohibition. How’s that for reform?