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It’s NOT all about the Benjamins

- October 19, 2009

(this is post #2 in a series on money and influence in politics)

I like the Center for Responsive Politics. I really do. They make an incredible amount of data on lobbying and campaign contributions very easily available, which makes it much easier to be a political scientist studying this stuff.

They also make it really easy for journalists to add figures about how much such and such special interest contributed to such and such candidate, the implication being that campaign contributions are trying to buy votes.

I just did a Google News search on “Center for Responsive Politics.” Dozens of articles from today’s papers are using the Center’s data. Here’s one from today’s _Kansas City Star_: “In health care overhaul effort, millions are being spent to influence Congress.”

The money-buys-votes story is in many ways intuitively appealing because it sort of makes sense. Interest groups want outcomes and have money. Legislators can deliver outcomes and want money so they can get re-elected. Sounds like a good trade.

Plus: why would these groups be spending all this money if it weren’t having at least some impact? They’re not stupid, are they?

What’s interesting, however, is that political scientists have been trying for decades to show a systematic relationship between campaign contributions and roll call votes. But they can’t seem to find one.

Here is Steve Ansolabehere, John de Figueiredo, and James M. Synder Jr., from a 2003 review of almost 40 studies on the question:

Overall, PAC contributions show relatively few effects on voting behavior. In three out of four instances, campaign contributions had no statistically significant effects on legislation or had the ‘wrong’ sign – suggesting that more contributions lead to less support.

Also: A very worthwhile new book, Lobbying and Policy Change concludes that there is no systematic relationship between lobbying resources and the likelihood that a “side” would get what it wanted (after an exhaustive study).

But should we even expect there to be a systematic relationship between money and outcomes? I see six reasons why we shouldn’t (there are probably more):

1) There is often a lot of money given on multiple sides of an issue. So a lot of the influence may depend not on how much is given, but what the competition looks like.

2) Giving a lot of money might be a sign an industry is in trouble. If healthcare industry spending reaches record numbers this election cycle (which it may), this will be because the industry was on the defensive. So maybe the more money given, the less likelihood a side has of succeeding.

3) A lot of money is given to members of Congress who are already supportive. Consider this piece from Friday’s _Atlanta Journal-Constitution_, which reports on two conservative, anti-reform Georgia Representatives who are getting showered with healthcare industry money. But are they being bought?

4) Different companies have different campaign contribution strategies. In my interviews, I found that some company lobbyists loved having a PAC because they thought it got them access. But others hated it, because it meant they were always being harassed to contribute. Without a systematic strategy, it’s hard to prove a systematic result.

5) Any company with a PAC is lobbying on multiple issues in a given election cycle, and it’s hard to tie their campaign contributions to any single issue.

6) Campaign contributions are only one of many strategies that lobbyists employ.

Political scientists often conclude that because there is no systematic relationship between money and votes, special interests don’t have much influence and everything is A-OK with democracy.

But just because the tools of multivariate regression can’t detect a systematic relationship doesn’t mean that all this money is wasted. Again: are groups really that stupid? Do we think that, if only they had gotten themselves a subscription to the _American Political Science Review_, they could have saved themselves millions of dollars?

The key point here is the sixth point: Campaign contributions are only one of many strategies that lobbyists employ. In my interviews, I surveyed lobbyists on a bunch of tactics they use, asking them to rank them in importance from one to seven.

The results are here.

Campaign contributions ranked near the bottom. This actually feels about right to me. My best guess is that campaign contributions help to make access a little easier and are a good token of friendship. At the very least, it means lobbyists will get some face-time at a fundraiser.

But access does not guarantee results. It might get one in the door. But once in the door, there are a whole lot of steps between a handshake and a presidential signing. There are also several other ways to get in the door besides money.

The rest of this series is going to look beyond the money and fills in the blacks in the hand-wavey “and then lobbyists undermine reform!” story. Lobbyists do a lot more than orchestrate campaign contributions, and they work very, very hard to shape and pass legislation in many perfectly legitimate ways. But the results can still be troubling.

In my next post, I’m going to shift to the lobbyists’ perspective on things. I hope this will provide a more nuanced understanding of the process, and lead us towards some often-overlooked sources of influence and power.