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Aaron Schock's downfall tells us we need to look at political spending as well as giving

- March 20, 2015

Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.) speaks to reporters in Peoria, Ill., on Feb. 6. (Seth Perlman/AP)
Most political downfalls have an element of tragedy, but the revelations that ended with the resignation of Rep. Aaron Schock of Illinois on Tuesday have mostly played out as comedy. As Chris Cillizza of The Washington Post noted, his sudden resignation had little impact because he was barely engaged as a member of Congress at all, and “view[ed] the office as a platform to gain wider celebrity in the popular culture.” From his “Downton Abbey”-themed office to a trip on a private plane to a Chicago Bears game, his violations of congressional and campaign-finance rules were large, but his crimes mostly victimless (his office budget would have been the same if he spent it on legislative staff rather than interior decorators), and no public policy was harmed by his vanity, as far as we know. In an institution where interns are often overworked and overlooked, he took his to a Katy Perry show.
But there is one serious element to the Schock story that should change the way we look at politics in the future: How candidates spend money can be as interesting as how they get it. Schock spent both his office budget and his campaign funds inappropriately, but to track his use of campaign funds for personal travels, the AP had to analyze the metadata, which showed his location, of his hyperactive Instagram account.
Most journalism about money in politics, and most research and data analysis, focuses solely on who gives money and how campaigns get money. It’s based on one familiar story about political corruption: A donor gives money, or raises money, for a candidate, and if the candidate is elected, the donor seeks to influence the elected official, subtly or not so subtly. What happens between the day the check is written and the day the obligation is called in is treated as a black box.
“Follow the money,” Deep Throat’s admonition to Bob Woodward in the early days of Watergate, has always meant following the money back to its source. But following the money forward, looking at what it buys and how it influences the choices that elected officials make, is just as important. The information has long been available in the reports that campaigns and party committees file with the Federal Election Commission. But it was only in February that the Center for Responsive Politics, the authoritative source of data on political money, added a section on expenditures.
Consider just a few of the things we could learn by looking more closely at political spending, not just giving:
Why do campaigns cost so much? We often assume that political campaigns are inevitably expensive because television advertising time is expensive. But campaigns don’t spend most of their money on broadcast advertising. They spend it on consultants, pollsters and strategists. As Matt Grossman of Michigan State has shown in a paper called “Campaigning as an Industry,” many of those consultants have their own incentives, including encouraging campaigns to buy more broadcast ads than they should, because consultants take 15 percent of the cost of ads. Many players in what Walter Shapiro has called “the campaign-industrial complex” have parlayed their role into horse farms in Virginia and Georgetown townhouses. What are they selling? Is it worth it? These questions matter,  because if we could find ways to reduce the cost of campaigns, the race for money would be less fevered.
How do members of Congress use money to gain power? Most members of Congress, like Schock, enjoy fairly safe seats, with little competition in either the general election or a primary. But they still raise millions of dollars. (Schock, even without seniority or clout, raised $10 million in his career and won all his elections by 20 points or more.) If they don’t need the money to get reelected, what do they do with it? They can spend it on travel and concerts if, like Schock, they are willing to break the rules. But if they want to stay within the law that prohibits personal use of campaign funds, they will give money to other members, especially those more junior or in vulnerable seats, strengthening their own power in the institution and building ties of obligation. As Eleanor Neff Powell has shown in “Where Money Matters in Congress” and other papers, “member to member giving has evolved into a primary determinant of career advancement” in Congress, and other research, by Eric Heberling, Marc Hetherington and Bruce Larson, suggests that this pattern of giving helps explain much of the increasing partisanship in Congress.
Are campaigns and outside spending groups working together? As more money has moved to “independent” vehicles such as Super PACs and political nonprofits, an important question is, how independent are they, really? The Federal Election Commission has yet to resolve key questions about defining coordination between campaigns and their external supporters. But important clues can be found in campaign spending. If candidates and the supposedly independent groups are using the same consultants, the same vendors, the same media buyers, that should be fairly strong evidence that they’re working together.
Who else does what Schock did? With so many members of Congress sitting on such huge war chests and facing little competition, it’s likely that there are others who are at least bending the rules on personal use of funds. Some might be employing relatives, for example. We’ll only know if reporters and researchers begin looking at the spending side of campaign reports as closely as they look at who gives. It’s time to start following the money in both directions.