While most Americans view the nation's capital as a dysfunctional mess, the city of Washington, D.C., seems to be working quite well for plenty of the people who live there.
The Washington region is the richest metropolitan area in the United States, and by a wide margin: the average household pulls down $10,000 more every year than second-place San Francisco. But unlike the Bay Area's wealth, which has been funded by the tech boom, Washington's wealth stems either directly or indirectly from government and a complicated flow of money through the public and private sectors.
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Wednesday's new documentary on TheBlaze TV, "Beltway Nation" (Oct. 8, 8 p.m. ET), investigates how so many people inside the Washington Beltway have gotten rich, while the rest of the country continues to struggle economically.
From corporations to lobbyists and politicians and back, the city of Washington runs on the flow of money. The economy is based almost exclusively on taxes, borrowed dollars and entire classes of people working very hard to control as much of that cash as possible.
The federal government spent $3.45 trillion in 2013, but according to the official estimates, that number is expected to rise to $4.73 trillion by 2019: a 37 percent increase in spending in just six years. The upcoming increases are hardly new; by those official numbers, government spending has grown in all but four years since 1954.
Such spending goes to military protection and government services for every American, but it also means big paydays for some very big corporations. The nonprofit Open the Books found that 99 of the 100 largest companies in the country received at least some government funding between 2000 and 2012. They raked in more than $1.22 trillion in government contracts, grants and other transfers — more than $1 billion per company per year on average.
One of the best ways for a company to keep that money flowing into its coffers is to hire a lobbyist. Researchers at the University of Kansas investigated the American Jobs Creation Act of 2004 and found that for every dollar companies spent on lobbying, they got back $220 in tax savings — a 2,200 percent return on their investment.
With that kind of ROI, it's no wonder that lobbying has become such big business. The nonpartisan Open Secrets says companies spent more than $3.2 billion on lobbying in 2013 — more than double the total from 2000. While the amount spent on lobbying may look like it has dropped slightly in recent years, that is likely not the case.
Open Secrets says a law termed the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 may have actually driven a large sector of lobbying underground, turning registered lobbyists into unregistered — and largely unregulated — "policy advisers" or "government affairs coordinators."
American University professor James Thurber has researched lobbying for decades and told the Nation that he believes companies actually spend roughly $9 billion on lobbying, registered or not, every year.
Even going by the smaller "official" numbers, the amounts spent by some companies and groups mean business is still booming on K Street. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent more than $74 million in 2013 just in "on the books" representation by lobbyists. That's nearly twice as much as the second-biggest spender, the National Association of Realtors ($38.5 million).
Not surprisingly, companies that rely on massive contracts from the Department of Defense such as Northrup Grumman ($20.5 million), Boeing ($15.2 millon) and Lockheed Martin ($14.4 million) rank among the biggest spenders. While that may seem like a lot to spend on something that has no direct impact on their products, an Open the Books study discovered that Lockheed Martin cashed in on $392 billion in government contracts from 2000-2012.
But the money doesn't just go to lobbyists. Members of Congress can get rich thanks to their influence as well through donations to their campaigns and their political action committees.
Comcast, which is currently fighting to win approval from the Federal Communications Committee for a $45 billion merger with Time Warner Cable, spent $18.8 million for "on the books" lobbying in 2013. The company employed a former FCC commissioner as a full-time lobbyist. However, it also had plenty of cash to hand out on Capitol Hill. Since 2009, Comcast's PAC has given money to the campaigns or PACs of 17 of the 18 members of the Senate Judiciary Committee which held hearings on the merger. All told, Comcast's PAC has written checks for more than $1.6 million so far in the 2014 election cycle, with similar slices of that pie going to Republicans and Democrats.
Those campaign contributions help fund the lavish lifestyles that many in Congress currently enjoy. Former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) famously spent more at steakhouses than his challenger spent on his entire campaign. On the other side of the aisle, the PAC for House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) spent $83,000 at a five-star resort in Puerto Rico.
It's easy for these public servants to throw money around because there is so much of it. By the end of June 2014, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) had raised more than $90 million for the upcoming election. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has raised $80 million for this election cycle.
Most of that money then gets transferred to other members of Congress, spreading both the wealth and influence of party leaders, as Congress decides how and where to spend your tax dollars.
From corporations to lobbyists, corporate PACs to politicians, and congressional-approved spending back to corporations, the economy of the nation's capital is stronger than ever.