Iron Triangles: America’s Dirtiest Secret

In the American forum, politicians function as figureheads, and this represents a rather nefarious political game. When we study our government’s behavior in minute detail, we see clearly that under-the-table dealings and gentlemen’s agreements contribute to the majority of American political decisions. Although corporations don’t have true political designations, the more influential and wealthy of these companies have a hand in setting the political, fiscal, and foreign agendas for our nation. Political action committees, lobbyists, and their donations operate in a constant state of motion. The perpetrators wheel and deal their way to the top of our political infrastructure. Such blatant rule bending causes serious problems when political candidates must raise increasingly more money to run for office.

Powerful lobbying organizations, legislative committees, and a number of easily manipulated government bureaucracies operate from a collusive, dominant position involving their own special interests. These folks are the powerful elite who form the three sides of what is known in American politics as an “Iron Triangle.” Iron Triangles have a policy of mutual gain. For example, congressional committees provide oversight and funding for governmental programs. The Senate Committee on Armed Services acts as a prime example of one such committee. Committees not only determine the heads of regulatory bodies and executive agencies, but also Congressional committees and subcommittees determine the jurisdictions, and sometimes the budgets, of executive agencies and regulatory commissions, a phenomenon addressed in an article by Marc A. Triebwasser.  Executive agencies and regulatory commissions, like the Veteran’s Administration or Federal Reserve, operate as special interest groups. Often, such agencies and commissions set agendas for Congress through lobbyists using corporate dollars. Via the lobbyists, corporations suggest legislation to congressional committee and subcommittee members. Thus, this cycle embeds corporate agendas into both Congressional policymaking and the agencies that supposedly act to check Congressional power.

Of course, American history contains many Iron Triangles. The relationship between the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), the House Committee on Aging, and the Social Security Administration clearly illustrates Iron Triangle profitability. In a broad sense, AARP (the special interest group) donates money to attractive political candidates. Inspired by contributions, said candidate either supports or fights certain legislations passed through Congress. In order to keep the House Committee on Aging happy, the Congressperson advocates an increase in the agency’s authority and/or budget. The Committee on Aging proceeds to pass regulations benefiting AARP.

Such tactics create a cycle that perpetuates a corporate dominance of the American political system. AARP, Inc. acts as an umbrella organization that contains several separate arms. AARP’s revenue and spending originate from a widespread business model starting with a membership and ending with insurance coverage. One look at their organization chart can make one’s head spin. Some of the branches of AARP operate solely on a for-profit basis, selling insurance and financial products to seniors. In 2009, AARP earned one billion dollars, not counting the other $994 million dollars in assets.

This excess is an exhibition of corruption. Although AARP falls under the heading of a 501(c)(4) tax-exempt nonprofit, their highest paid employee, CEO Barry Rand, receives an annual salary of $575,000 dollars, and he allowed his organization to spend $21 million in support for congressional Democrats in 2009. Even worse, according to the 2011 investigative report prepared by Representatives Wally Herger and Dave Reichert, seven of the 22 board members running the nonprofit activities comprised the entire board for the for-profit arm of the company. The nonprofit subsidiaries of AARP allow the corporate interest of the for-profit branches to meddle in policymaking that directly affects their bottom line.

Although they’ve dispersed their business activities across a wide range of nonprofit and for-profit ventures, AARP receives unequal government aid to purportedly better the lives of American senior citizens. The IRS, The Department of Labor, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Health and Human Services combined in contributing $83 million to AARP to aid the elderly in 2004. AARP’s programs counsel their members in everything from taxes to Medicare fraud prevention. To provide those special discounts and other benefits to their members, AARP collects $16 annually and then discloses their membership list to for-profit insurance companies. Maintaining seamlessness, these companies provide insurance under AARP’s name, an application of ingenious branding that is then used to drum up political support for the company’s agenda.

The Republican Party historically opposes AARP, but that’s probably because the corporation chooses to back Democratic candidates more often than Republican.  AARP has no official party affiliations although donation records and patterns show steep favoritism for the Democratic Party. Because they support AARP’s corporate interests, benefitting Democrats will not advocate against AARP as long as their funding remains steady. Instead, spearheads supporting AARP’s blatant abuse of non-profit designation frequently occur within Congress. When Bush attempted reforming the Social Security system, AARP worked through lobbyists, committees, and Democratic funding to achieve the proposition’s dismissal.

The Iron Triangle between the House Committee on Aging, the Social Security Administration, and AARP exemplifies governmental corruption via corporate special interests. While any American has the right “to petition the government for redress of grievances,” a majority of lobbyists have corporate or special interest backing. Rarely would one find a small business deep-set within an Iron Triangle framework. Small businesses simply do not have the money or resources to feed a machination this large. When Senators or House Representatives retire, major corporations often hire them as lobbyists or consultants. Why not? Ex-politicians are both well connected and well versed in the inner workings of the American government. They understand the system, and they’re certainly familiar with ways to bend the law.

At this point in the conversation, everyone should have intuited that although Iron Triangles may benefit their members, such systematized bribery should not be tolerated by the American population at large. Article 2, Section 4 of the Constitution allows for the impeachment of any government officer on charges of bribery. Of course, law dictates that arrangements between special interest groups, Congress, and governmental agencies and commissions do not occur directly enough to be considered bribery.

However, since the Supreme Court’s ruling in 2010 concerning corporate personhood, we may want to reexamine why our courts would decide that corporations, as individuals, have the right to make corporate expenditures under the First Amendment. If corporations can be legally considered individuals, perhaps we can reevaluate whether corporate contributions constitute bribery. As another possibility, we could restrict the amounts of money corporations can give to political campaigns. Corporations have the power to actively change the mindset of America’s leaders. Ultimately, Iron Triangles allow corporations to control American policymaking and regulation.

As free citizens, we must examine this phenomenon and discover ways to circumvent such obvious power hoarding. America should be ruled by the People and for the People, not by an oligarchy of rich, power-mad abusers of the system.