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What's Wrong With Washington

How much are voters to blame?

Special interests. Among the problems the public sees with government, the influence of lobbyists and other special interests is paramount. In a Pew Research Center study, 82 percent of those polled complained about the influence bought with special-interest money.

Special-interest groups have grown dramatically since the 1960s, Hult says, and in addition to lobbying can run their own issue advertisements during elections. That type of influence can skew what does — or doesn't — get done in Washington.

"My concern is that it isn't an equal playing field. Some of those interests are louder and richer," Hult says. "That may well be why we don't have public policy that is reflective of what most of the public wants."

And when there's a lot at stake and powerful special interests butt heads — as in the case of the deficit-cutting efforts — stalemate is the result, Hult says.

A crisis of public confidence also has ensued.

"It's a huge deterioration of trust in government," Gergen says. "Both right and left feel the system is rigged against them."

The amount spent on lobbying has catapulted from $1.44 billion in 1998 to $2.44 billion last year, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. That includes $22 million spent last year by AARP.

And the amount of money the federal government is spending has skyrocketed — giving special interests more incentive to lobby Washington. Federal outlays were nearly $3.5 trillion in 2010, compared with $1.8 trillion 10 years ago.

James Madison argued that the influence of special interests would rise and fall as power shifts back and forth. But, Gergen says, "our problem now is the pendulum is stuck. No one is getting anything done."

Tamara Lytle has reported on Congress, the White House, politics and elections for more than 20 years.

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