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)

Harry Bucher

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.


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

Harry Bucher

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.



How is this not blindingly obvious?


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.


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.

Oliver H

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.


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 )

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.



But the political contribution to Obama are largely small sums from many people; thus highly representative. There may be a dependence of candidates on the wealthy, but if interest groups are diverse enough, their impacts on candidates will eventually cancel each other out, right?

Eric Walklet

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%.


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.


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?


Oliver H

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?


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?

No Name

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.



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