Many people would say the United States is ruled by the president—as the single office selected by all Americans and the head of the executive branch, the presidency commands more power than any other elected position in the land. Others might say that America is governed by Congress—with its ability to pass legislation, approve executive and judicial appointments, and exercise the “power of the purse,” Congress ultimately wields the upper hand in any political contest. Still others point to big corporations, unions, and other special-interest groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA) or the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP).1 These groups “govern” America not only through the direct lobbying of the various branches of government, but also in their ability to shape elections. Because candidates for congress and the presidency are so dependent on the efforts and campaign contributions of such interest groups, they repeatedly bow to their preferences.
This debate is probably familiar to most readers. It has animated American political discourse since the writing of the Federalist Papers. It speaks to fundamental concerns over the distribution of power and popular governance. It dominates the coverage of politics in the popular media. And its focus on national politics encapsulates the way most people conceptualize American governance. But this debate also suffers from a major problem—it overlooks an enormous part of America’s governing structure.
Outside of Washington, there exists a largely unrecognized political entity that exerts an enormous influence on American society. It accounts for over $1.6 trillion in spending every year, roughly a quarter of the nation’s gross domestic product. It collects more
1 The amount of political writings on this topic are too numerous to document, but some recent notable examples include Bartels 2008, Hacker and Pierson 2010, and Frank 2004.