(Susan Walsh/AP)

To judge from polls, Americans are deeply concerned about political corruption. They share a widespread belief that members of Congress are unethical, with lobbyists as the only group seen as more unethical. The implicit understanding of politics is that the “special interests” and their lobbyists “buy” politicians, sort of like you’d buy a candy bar or a bag of chips out of a (very high-dollar) vending machine.

The problem with this view is not only that is it wrong, but also that it misdirects us. In short, it asks us to analyze politics without the actual politics –without the competition between competing interests, without the shifting alliances and coalitions, without parties and ideology, without any sense of there being a policy process, and without the many unpredictabilities and uncertainties that make politics actually interesting. It asks us to analyze transactions between individual politicians and individual special interests, as if they were separate and independent events (they are neither) that can be described as either “corrupt” or “not corrupt” (a useless dichotomy).

In so doing, we miss the bigger and more important story. The real story is not that lobbying or special interests are inherently bad. We have had them as long as we’ve had politics.

The problem is that one set of interests routinely overpowers the rest. In particular, corporate lobbying has metastasized over the last four decades, and this increasingly over-crowded and hyper-contested lobbying environment benefits the large corporations who have the most resources to participate in the day-to-day workings of Congress. This problem is compounded because Congress increasingly lacks its own capacity to keep up.

Organized interests collectively report $3.2 billion a year in lobbying expenditures, and probably equally or greater amounts on non-reported lobbying-related activities. The most active organizations are now hiring upwards of 100 lobbyists to represent them. These statistics alone should tell us that special interests don’t “buy” politicians with campaign contributions. If they did, there’d be no point in spending all that money to hire lobbyists.

The reason to hire so many lobbyists is that genuine political influence is actually hard work. It requires building a compelling case and then making that case over and over and over again. It means being in multiple places at once. Most of the time in Washington, not much is happening at the measurable surface.

But in the slow churn of the “war of position,” relationships are being maintained. Coalitions are being built. Worldviews are being reiterated. Legislation is being drafted and vetted. Carefully selected constituents are being brought in to tell carefully rehearsed stories. People are talking to other people, trying to figure out who will do what, what ideas are “serious” and “not serious,” what has a chance of moving, what isn’t going anywhere, what the press will cover, what voters might care about, and countless other attempts to shape the “common knowledge” of Washington.

The most active participants have many different goals they’d like to achieve: some long-term, some short-term. Scrutinize the lobbying reports of any major lobbying entity, and you will see an impressive range of issues and bills. Like a good venture capitalist, these major lobbying entities are investing in many possibilities, engaging in “spread betting” with the knowledge that one big tax break or patent extension or stalled regulation can more than justify a decade of government relations for a large corporation. Often, the main goal is keeping an issue off the agenda.

To focus only on the campaign contributions as transactional “buying” activity misses all this rich detail. Certainly, campaign contributions help, and all else equal, members of Congress are more likely to listen to those who contribute to their campaigns than those who don’t. But congressional offices get contributions from more people than they can effectively respond to. Often, they get contributions from interests on both sides of an issue.

Lobbyists also gain access because they have personal relationships with members or staff. Or because they have useful policy information or analysis – an especially valuable resource for young staffers who are stretched far too thin and happy for any help. Or because they just keep showing up. For the last 15 years, companies have consistently spent 13 times more on lobbying than they have on PAC contributions.

While considerable empirical work finds that there is no consistent correlation between money spent on outcomes in any given case, it would be a tremendous mistake to then conclude that resources are irrelevant. The key is to understand resources in the aggregate. More resources allow you to hire more lobbyists, to work on more issues – to do more of everything.

Looking at lobbying in the aggregate, what jumps out is the stark imbalance in resources. Corporations blow everyone else out of the water. Business accounts for roughly 80 percent of all reported lobbying expenditures, about $2.6 billion dollars a year now.

Certainly, there has always been “bias in the pressure system” (political science shorthand for the fact that not all interests are equally represented). But what’s new is just how much the steady and continued expansion of business lobbying over the last several decades has outpaced the traditional forces that once kept it in check.

The amount of political activity on behalf of large corporations today is truly unprecedented. The $2.6 billion in reported corporate lobbying spending is now more than the combined under $2 billion budget for the entire Senate ($860 million) and the entire House ($1.18 billion).

Meanwhile, the types of organized interests who we might expect to provide a countervailing force to business — labor unions, groups representing diffuse public like consumers or taxpayers — spend $1 for every $34 businesses spend on lobbying, by my count. Of the 100 organizations that spend the most on lobbying annually, consistently 95 represent business. In interviewing 60 corporate lobbyists for my book The Business of America is Lobbying, I asked them to identify the leading opposition on an issue on which they were currently working. Not a single lobbyist volunteered a union or a “public interest” group.

Even if we take the most benign view of lobbying as merely providing information and legislative support, these data suggest that, on many issues, policymakers hear significantly more often from one side than another. While no single investment leads predictably to any outcome, quantity and quality matter: To hire more and more senior and connected people to be more places to make more and better arguments on your behalf with more detail and build more and more high-impact allies improves one’s chances. How much? It depends. But, on average, it’s not zero.

This growing imbalance has had two major effects on the political system.

First, it is increasingly difficult to challenge any existing policy that benefits politically active corporations. Though corporate lobbying has become more ambitious and more aggressive over the years, the top priority for most corporate lobbyists is still preserving the status quo. When I surveyed corporate lobbyists on the reasons why their companies maintained a Washington presence, the top reason was “to protect the company against changes in government policy.” On a 1-7 scale, lobbyists ranked this reason at 6.2 (on average)

Second, the sheer amount of lobbying has created a policymaking environment that now requires significant resources to get anything done. Which means that, with increasingly rare exceptions, the only possible policy changes on economic policy issues are those changes that at least some large corporations support.

This state of affairs is not inevitable. But the key point is that we need to move past the overly simplistic questions about whether or not money “buys” votes or whether or not our politics are “corrupt.” These either/or questions are not only unanswerable; they also shift our focus away from seeing the system as a whole – a necessary first step toward making it work better.

Lee Drutman is a Senior Fellow at New America and the author of The Business of America is Lobbying: How Corporations Became Politicized and Politics Became More Corporate.  For tonight’s event on this book, see here.

Correction: The annual budgets for the House and Senate were slightly misstated, and have been corrected.  The budgets for the fiscal year 2014 are here.