Some Evidence on Whether Money Buys Political Influence

A new paper by graduate students David Broockman and Josh Kalla tackles an eternal, oft-debated question: does money buy influence? Here’s the abstract:

Concern that lawmakers grant preferential treatment to individuals because they have contributed to political campaigns has long occupied jurists, scholars, and the public. However, the effects of campaign contributions on legislators’ behavior have proven notoriously difficult to assess. We report the first randomized field experiment on the topic. In the experiment, a political organization attempted to schedule meetings between 191 Members of Congress and their constituents who had contributed to political campaigns. However, the organization randomly assigned whether it informed legislators’ offices that individuals who would attend the meetings were contributors. Congressional offices made considerably more senior officials available for meetings when offices were informed the attendees were donors, with senior officials attending such meetings more than three times as often (p < 0.01). Influential policymakers thus appear to make themselves much more accessible to individuals because they have contributed to campaigns, even in the absence of quid pro quo arrangements. These findings have significant implications for ongoing legal and legislative debates. The hypothesis that individuals can command greater attention from influential policymakers by contributing to campaigns has been among the most contested explanations for how financial resources translate into political power. The simple but revealing experiment presented here elevates this hypothesis from extensively contested to scientifically supported.

“Most Americans can’t afford to contribute to campaigns in meaningful amounts, while those who can have very different priorities than the broader public,” the authors explained in an interview with the Washington Post‘s Monkey Cage blog.  “Concern that campaign donations facilitate the wealthy’s well-documented greater influence with legislators has long inspired reformers to make changes to the system of campaign finance. Our results support their concerns.”

(HT: The Daily Dish)

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COMMENTS: 25


  1. Harry Bucher says:

    This is interesting. It doesn’t prove, however, that money buys policies. It shows that money buys a higher grade of flunky to listen to your grievances.
    To be really meaningful the next step would need to demonstrate that the donors actually got their thoughts/complaints turned into policies and votes by the politicians.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 16 Thumb down 17
    • PopeJamal says:

      That’s funny because I was under the impression that often times lobbyists LITERALLY write the legislation that gets passed:

      http://www.npr.org/blogs/itsallpolitics/2013/11/11/243973620/when-lobbyists-literally-write-the-bill

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 16 Thumb down 1
      • Harry Bucher says:

        Right. But that isn’t quite the same thing.

        There are lots of ways that lobbyists can work; threatening a PAC campaign against a legislator; threatening to make direct contributions to his rivals; offering to put in a good word for him with his national party; making life easier for his staff by drafting bills; maybe even by the logic and ethics of their arguments. Cold hard cash in his campaign coffers is merely one among these. So this study seems to focus on a only a single weapon in the lobbyists’a armory.

        Furthermore, this study does not even look at lobbyists as that term is usually understood. The stereotypical lobbyist is the ‘beltway bandit.’ Based near DC, he either works for a private lobbying firm for the highest bidder turning his attention to whichever causes hires his employer’s services, or works for a larger corporation or pressure group which maintains a permanent lobbying office.

        These lobbyists are not the subject of this study. These are constituents of the legislators; potentially they represent the concerns of a significant proportion of his voters. What this study shows is that those who donate get a higher grade of staffer to pretend to listen to whatever they are blathering about (too little regulation, not enough regulation; too many gays, not enough gays; whatever).

        It’s possible, of course, that the more senior flunky is assigned because the legislator wants to put the donor’s concerns into action. It’s also possible that this is done because he wants to give the donor a better pretence of really caring about the concerns, while not really taking into account the whiner’s opinions, but still keeping the cash rolling in. “Oh yeah, I really hear you, we’d love to get that through, but you know how gridlocked Congress is right now, I just don’t see it happening this session. Hopefully next session. You are backing us again for next session, right?”

        I acknowledge that this study is interesting (if nothing else, it demonstrates that congressional staffers rely on donors to self-identify rather than checking them against a database). But if you want to know how much money buys how many policies, in a quantified way, that would be a different study.

        Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 2
      • Oliver H says:

        @Harry Bucher

        “It’s possible, of course, that the more senior flunky is assigned because the legislator wants to put the donor’s concerns into action. It’s also possible that this is done because he wants to give the donor a better pretence of really caring about the concerns, while not really taking into account the whiner’s opinions, but still keeping the cash rolling in.”

        And you believe that doing just that will keep the cash rolling in? I assume then that you believe that the people with such amounts of cash got them by sheer coincidence and not because they watch their ROI?

        Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0
    • meanonsunday says:

      Exactly right. There is nothing in the article that even addresses influence on the actions of the politician. What would be much more interesting is how much influence the very largest donors actually have. For example there is no question that public employee unions give vast amounts of money to Democrats and that the politicians then support policies favored by the unions. (Same applies to business groups and Republicans). Is that influence? What is exactly the baseline to compare against? Do we expect a politician to represent 1) his own views, 2) his parties views, 3)the views of those who voted for him, 4)all the people of his district, or 5)what is “best” for the country? Depending which of these you choose behaving according to any of the others could be interpreted as the influence of money.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1
    • CS says:

      Harry is right, there is no proof of anything but the obvious. If I make a donation I have already decided I support their viewpoint. If I then go make a visit, it would be nice to know my previous donation is recognized. If I request a visit BEFORE I make the donation and condition that donation on support of something of interest to me that is a different matter. This is just bad social science by people with too much free time.

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      • Oliver H says:

        Nope, you just didn’t read the article. It’s not about the donor making a visit, it’s about the official gracing events with their visit in which their donors can bitch and moan how much they are being victimized by the larger population and how they should really be protected from these unreasonable demands.

        And since time is expendable only once, that allows for a pretty nice way to monopolize the attention of officials so that the street rabble doesn’t get to tell their side of the story.

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  2. CM says:

    How is this not blindingly obvious?

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    • Copernicus says:

      Lots of things are blindingly obvious, but on closer examination turn out to be blind assumptions. One of science’s more “janitorial” functions is to follow up on assumed truths and turn them into verified-as-far-as-reasonably-possible truths. In the worst case, we get a solid foundation for future working assumptions (which then be verified, etc.), and once in a while we luck out and find new truths that overturn previous assumptions.

      http://www.buzzfeed.com/awesomer/things-you-always-believed-that-simply-arent-true

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  3. Kris says:

    I’m not 100% convinced that donors run the show, I tend to believe the mostly are pushing at the margins. Let me give an example: I’m represented in Congress by a very anti-energy Congressman. Now, this is a safe seat but let’s imagine somehow it becomes competitive. If you’re a big shot with the energy industry, it’s a heck of a lot easier to donate to an opponent of this Congressman who’s already supportive of drilling vs. donating to him and trying to coax him into supporting fracking.

    I think lobbyist work far more at the margins. Its a lot easier to convince a politician who’s already in favor of big labor’s policies to vote for a particular hand-out to labor unions than to flip an anti-union politician. It’s a lot easier to get a politician who supports the energy industry to vote for a bill easing drilling regulations than to flip one who’s backed by environmentalist.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 1
    • Oliver H says:

      You overlook a number of aspects: First, it is not important to “turn” an individual Congressman. What is important is to get a majority for your bill. Second, incumbents usually have a slight advantage over challengers. So if a seat is suddenly competitive, it is probably less risky to put your money on the incumbent than on the challenger. It might be enough to suggest that in the absence of HIS support, you’re going to support the challenger. But trying to work with the incumbent usually has both the higher chance to succeed AND requires less investment, as you do not have to make up for the incumbent advantage. Lastly, having a lot of access to candidates “in spe”, i.e. potential future candidates, means that one of these days, you can lean back and not bother who of several candidates is going to win, because they all have long adopted what you want them to believe.

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    • David says:

      Whether or not that’s true, a lot of legislation is done on the margins. Donors don’t have to totally run the show in order to have a negative impact on the legislative process. All those handouts could be put to better use.

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  4. DrPsyPhi says:

    Well then!
    Although this bit, “Influential policymakers thus appear to make themselves much more accessible to individuals because they have contributed to campaigns, even in the absence of quid pro quo arrangements. These findings have significant implications for ongoing legal and legislative debates.” may be less impactful in light of last weeks ruling by the supreme court (see http://thecolbertreport.cc.com/videos/n79fg2/supreme-court-ruling-on-aggregate-campaign-funding )

    In sum: “Justice Roberts teaches us that ‘government regulation may not target the general gratitude a candidate may feel toward those who support him…or the the political access such support may afford…’Ingratiation and access…are not corruption.’ In fact, those things don’t even have ‘the appearance of corruption.’”

    “Did you get that?” Colbert asked. “Ingratiation and access are not corruption, so if you think legislators lining up to listen to megadonors like the Koch Brothers or George Soros appears corrupt, good news! John Roberts has ruled you don’t think that.” The only real corruption, apparently, is quid pro quo, which Steven says is easy to prove, as long as politician remember to hold on to their corruption receipts.

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  5. HWu says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

    Disliked! Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 5
  6. Eric Walklet says:

    In an episode about political fundraising a while back, This American Life offered some astronomical statistic regarding political contributions. Something like an average ROI of 11,000%.

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    • meanonsunday says:

      Those numbers are pretty meaningless since most donors support someone who already agrees with them. If I earn minimum wage and donate $1 to a group that supports the proposed minimum wage increase I could get a 350,000% ROI in just year. Unless of course my employer cuts jobs in response.

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  7. James says:

    In fairness, I think such a study should also look at the rate at which non-monetary contributions helped gain access. I would bet that someone who actively worked for Congresscritter X’s campaign would have pretty good access, as would the executives of groups that supported him/her, all without money being exchanged*.

    Perhaps we could even work out an exchange rate, so that X hours of volunteer work bought the same access as a contribution of $Y.

    And why shouldn’t it? Unless you believe that no one should have access to legislators at all, there is going to be some sort of priority ranking, since for anything above town meeting level it’s simply imposible for a legislator to meet with all interested constituents. Human nature being what it is, a quid pro quo of some sort is going to figure in that priority. So if I am better at making money than at the usually menial tasks of a campaign volunteer, why shouldn’t mine be in money?

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    • Oliver H says:

      I posit that your exchange rate would look pretty miserable for the volunteer work. Mere physical presence isn’t access.

      So human nature being what it is, a quid pro quo of some sort will of course happen? You see, it is precisely such quid pro quo that in other societies is called “corruption”.

      But perhaps you can present a valid reason why when for example a company blights an entire landscape with its waste, it is perfectly ok that the owners of the company can monopolize access to the candidates so that the candidates never get to hear anything but how much wealth the company brings into the community and nothing about how that wealth is dwarfed by the costs of keeping the area inhabitable?

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      • James says:

        Can I present a reason? No, other than human nature. But I certainly could present examples of legislative mandates that have been driven by pressure groups other than non-wealthy donors.

        Just for an instance, in the blighting entire landscapes category, why do we have mountaintop removal coal mines, instead of clean, unobtrusive nuclear power, if not through the disinformation campaigns of non-wealthy pressure groups?

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      • Oliver H says:

        I’m not sure if it was you who failed to reconize the difference between one-time and cumulative risks last time we broached that subject but lets not go there again.

        But if you want an explanation, how about this one: Because operaters of nuclear power in various countries have demonstrated time and time again that they are their own worst enemy and simply lack the responsibility necessary to handle such a technology? You wouldn’t want to have a level 4 biosafety lab to be run by a punch and judy show either.

        But it seems me somewhat naive to believe that the Koch Brothers would suddenly go nuclear if the opportunity presented itself. You’d likely see them fight nuclear just as much as they fight other threats.

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      • No Name says:

        I’ve been in the business for a long time, and I’ve never seen one group “monopolize” access to a legislator. One of the cardinal rules of politics is that friends and allies come and go but enemies accumulate. I’ve seen conservative Republicans (who would never vote for gay marriage) bend over backwards to make their legislation less offensive to the gay lobby. I’ve seen liberal Democrats do much the same thing for their ideological opponents. The only time they aren’t as accommodating is when the bill will directly affect their chances of reelection.

        I’ve worked on thousands of bills and I can count on my fingers the number of bills that haven’t been changed or amended due to somebody raising concerns.

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  8. No Name says:

    For over a decade, I’ve seen this process work from the inside. And yes, money does buy access. And sometimes, the information and arguments you get during the discussion do cause legislators to rethink their positions. But for the most part, campaign cash doesn’t in and of itself cause legislators to change votes. Legislators are too strong willed and ideological for that.

    People love to blame lobbyists and “special interests.” It’s an awful big coincidence that they are the only groups that’s has no voice to defend themselves during elections and that they are the ones who get blamed for everything that’s wrong with politics. This is kind of like my grandpa jokingly blaming everything that went wrong on the dog.

    What about the legislators? I’m not a lobbyist, and I don’t represent “special interests,” but I do spend a lot of time talking with them. And quite a few are my friends. So I’ve listend over a beer to a lobbyist wax gleeful about tougher new ethics rules being put into place. There is a twinkle in their eyes and a smile on their face as they tell me about how they, “darned it!,” had to turn down a legislator’s request for money. (This was because of new ethics rules put in place a few years back.) And I’ve been in a similar situation when another lobbyist tells me how upset they were because leadership called and told them flatly that, if they don’t meet a certain level of funding, they’re agenda will suffer. I hate to say this about my clients, but my experience is that the members shake down the lobbyists and then blame them for everything that’s wrong with politics.

    Elections are the Achilles’ heal of our system.

    Politics wouldn’t even work without lobbyists. How much do you think the average legislator knows about telecommunications policy, criminal justice, medical treatment, building construction, automobile manufacturing, environmental regulations, financial institutions, land management, etc., etc., etc? Where is the genius who has a working understanding of the issues faced by each of these areas? I’ve never met such a person. The lobbyists are the one who bring this information to the table.

    If I could, I’d tell you stories about how major policy blunders were barely avoided. I’d tell you how legislators, without seeking guidance from lobbyists, have almost done really stupid things.

    Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1
    • Oliver H says:

      No name, that’s all good and fine and I’ve worked with industry associations myself. But there is a wide gap between stating your opinion, annotating a legislative draft with your concerns etc. and generally giving your expertise and paying to monopolize someone’s time and doing everything to have someone specific win. Let alone handing one interest group the task of drafting legislature when there are several other stakeholders in the mix. If an industry association is allowed to comment draft legislation, asking that certain points be scratched because they have negative consequences A, B and C, we’re a far cry from letting that industry association draft the legislation themselves. And their customers would likely have other ideas what should be in that legislation, just as their suppliers would, possibly.

      I work in an industry which has seen ethics regulations go through the roof, not the least due to backlash by both our own customers and politics. Let’s not pretend abuse isn’t there. I’ll be the first to say that lobbyism per se is just free speech and hearing of experts, and that unions in the end are also lobby groups. But let’s not claim that speaking out and giving expertise is all that happens.

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      • No Name says:

        I don’t know how to say this without sounding rude, but your statement betrays a lack of experience with the nuts and bolts of drafting and passing legislation. Have you ever tried to draft legislation by committee? It’s about the dumbest thing you can do. Having a group draft the legislation isn’t nearly as nefarious as you seem to think. First off, most of the time, the group hires a lawyer and drafts a proposal. They take this to the legislator to convince the legislator to run it. You seem to imply that a legislator asks the group to draft legislation. That’s not how it works. If it’s the legislator’s idea, the legislator has staff write something up.

        Second, the group’s proposal is typically vetted with the other stakeholders after the member has agreed to carry it. Then, it’s typically redrafted at least once if not dozens of times to address the other stakeholder’s concerns. Now, this isn’t a perfect process. Most of the time, stakeholders are missed, and the bill has to be amended more than once in committee or on second reading. That’s why a bill is heard at least four times before the body votes it up or down.

        Who claimed “abuse isn’t there” or “speaking out and giving expertise is all that happens”? I’m not even sure what that means. I’m aware of ethics lapses and abuses. But that’s a big difference from claiming the system is corrupt or that people are selling votes. It’s broken but not because of special interests.

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  9. Nate says:

    P values? Really? Come on, we can do better than that in the 21st century.

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