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The Briefing: How to fight the money-grabbing special interests

WASHINGTON – The warnings are stark, saying, in essence, your money or your rights.

"Justice Kennedy is retiring from the Supreme Court, putting Roe v. Wade in grave danger," NARAL Pro-Life America warns on the front page of its website. "Chip in today to fight back."

"It's not just about guns. It's about freedom," the National Rifle Association says as it tries to entice you to join -- $30 for one year, $55 for two years, $75 for three years and $100 for five years.

Actually, it's not just about abortion, or guns, or freedom. It's about money.

Both NARAL and the NRA are major players in the Washington ecosystem of stalemate, and it's all because the American public pays their freight.

But doing so, as we shall see, is fraught – especially when there might be a more effective way to spend your public-interest dollars right around the corner.

To see what's so fraught about some of these national interest groups, let's start with NARAL. The nation's leading abortion rights group, it's a $10.7 million organization, getting virtually all of its money from contributions, grants and fundraising campaigns.

Yet it also ran a deficit of more than $800,000 in 2016, the last year for which Charity Navigator has data on the organization.

Which raises a question: If you give NARAL $5, $10, $15, $25 or $40 dollars, as its website suggests, will that money go toward the probably lost cause of trying to stop President Trump from appointing a pro-life justice to replace Kennedy – or will it go to pay NARAL's bills?

Of course, that question pales in comparison to what prospective NRA members ought to ponder, which is the $1.4 million salary the gun rights group paid to its chief executive, Wayne LaPierre, in 2016. This makes one wonder: how much of the money that the NRA raises through memberships really goes to fight for gun rights? And how much goes to funding big salaries and palatial offices?

Let's not just pick on NARAL and the NRA, either. Name an interest, and there's an interest group, all dedicated to making matters seem worse than they seem just so that people like you will pony up.

And this, of course, is democracy. Collective action is more effective than individual action, and so it makes sense for like-minded individuals to join together and push their causes in the nation's capital. And after all, corporate America does the same thing to a remarkable degree, and it can be argued that it's better for America for the average person – the average pro-choice activist or the average hunter – to pay for a little piece of a voice in the nation's capital.

But still, one has to wonder: Is this the best way for average people to spend their money? Or would it be better to be a locavore when it comes to your public interest dollars as well as your food dollars?

If you are pro-choice, for example, which will  have more impact – a contribution to NARAL, or a contribution to Planned Parenthood of Central and Western New York – which, unlike NARAL, offers counseling and other services to people who need it? Similarly, which will do more good – a contribution to the National Right to Life Committee, or a contribution to the Diocese of Buffalo's Mother Teresa Home, which provides a home to single moms as they have their babies?

And on the gun issue, if you're pro-Second Amendment, which is better: subsidizing Wayne LaPierre's salary or joining the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, which fights the on-the-ground battle against Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's SAFE Act? And if you favor gun control, which will be the wiser investment: contributing to the national Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence when the national gun debate is going nowhere, or giving to New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, which stands a fighting chance of fixing the loopholes in New York's gun laws, such as its lack of "safe storage" legislation?

Perhaps, a day after Independence Day, these questions are worth pondering. After all, James Madison did.

In Federalist Papers, he warned of the "mischiefs of faction" – that is, the harm people can do to the national body politic if they join together to push a private interest over a public interest.

Madison thought factions were inevitable, but that they could be controlled by a balancing of interests, where groups would have to form temporary alliances to form temporary majorities until other issues drove them apart.

But there's another way to control factionalism on the national level, too.

We can stop feeding the monstrous national special interests with the money that keeps them thriving, and we can spend that money locally, where it's likely to help people the most.

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