It’s a troubling fact that corporations now spend more lobbying Congress than Congress spends to fund itself. The result is a system in which underpaid, undermanned legislative staffs can easily end up in thrall to big-money corporate operations with resources and expertise to spare. The multimillion-dollar imbalance further tips the scales in favor of the powerful in the heart of our policymaking.
But the sum that companies plow into the Washington influence game also belongs in some context. Yes, it’s a lot. It could, however, be a lot more.
The entire budget paid out to sway our heads of state is essentially a rounding error when viewed in comparison with the broader world of corporate expenses. Consider these other costs that don’t get so much as a second look, and yet manage to eclipse the total annual lobbying outlay.
Maybe Congress should charge more.
$3.2 billion — Total spent on lobbying
This figure, calculated by the Center for Responsive Politics, includes spending by corporations, which dominate the influence industry—but also labor unions and other special-interest advocates, like the AARP and the Sierra Club.
$3.3 billion — Coca Cola’s ad budget
The beverage giant spent this much alone on ads promoting its brands around the globe. And CEO Muhtar Kent has said the budget could stretch an additional $1 billion by 2016.
$7.2 billion — Petrobras’s losses last year
The Brazilian energy company lost many, many billions more in a single 12-month period than all the tabs for steak dinners and well appointed private briefings that K Street could muster. Granted, the company is coming off a particularly rocky period, as its eye-popping losses last year can attest. A massive corruption scandal forced the chief executive and entire board to resign and cost the company $2.1 billion alone from the revelation an eight-year kickback scheme.
$3.6 billion — Renovations to LaGuardia Airport
New York City’s beleaguered, begrimed travel hub has become a symbol of our crumbling national infrastructure. By the end of the year, construction is set to begin on a much-needed overhaul of its central terminal, with an aim of more than doubling its capacity by 2017.
$6.2 billion — Value of the global electronic dance music industry
It’s not for everybody. Let’s be honest, it’s not even for most people. But electronic dance music is apparently for enough people around the world that the value of the market from music sales and streams, festival and club income and other related economic activity stacks up to some big numbers.
$7.4 billion — Consumer spending on Halloween
All those candies and costumes really add up. Americans shelled out more than twice as much for last year’s spook-tacular as special interests spent in Washington. And it was only one night. The candy lobby itself, however—a group called the National Confectioners Association—spent about a quarter-million dollars lobbying, a relatively paltry amount.
A shorter version of this story appeared in the May 1, 2015 issue of Fortune magazine.