A New York Times/CBS News poll released in June 2015 found a rare point of virtual unanimity among members of the American public: 84% of respondents agreed there is too much money in politics; and a total of 85% said that the current system of campaign finance either needs fundamental reform or should be rebuilt entirely.
The 2012 election cycle saw money flowing from many new sources and the acceleration of Super PACs in the context of the new, looser regulatory and legal environment, a result of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, $6.3 billion was spent during the 2012 election in total — $3.7 billion in Congressional races, and $2.6 billion on the presidential election. The rise of so-called “dark money,” a category of financing where the names of backers go undisclosed, makes the effects of all this much harder to trace. Overall, scholars continue to worry that this level of spending by wealthy donors and corporations has the potential to diminish the average citizen’s role even further in the democracy.
As money has flooded politics in recent years, news media have certainly pursued some of the consequences and uncovered malfeasance and questionable relationships. However, some longtime observers, such as the Washington Post‘s Bob Woodward, have noted the need for greater energy and resources for “following the money” at this moment of escalation:
There is a new governing crisis here and it is getting worse. It is about money in politics. It involves both political parties. I won’t name names. If you follow the news at all, you know. It is said that the media is sleeping, lost its investigative zeal and does not have the patience to dig. There is some truth to that. But that changes when there is a good story. And money in politics is a great story and important to democracy. It is important that the next president be able, unfettered and unbought, to find and move the country to the next stage of good.
The most palpable and immediate effect of this level of campaign spending on the average voter is a tidal wave of negative political ads, but perhaps the more substantial concern is the long-term effect on the political and legislative process. A 2015 study published in the American Journal of Political Science, “Campaign Contributions Facilitate Access to Congressional Officials: A Randomized Field Experiment,” analyzed data from a research effort whereby a political organization attempted to schedule meetings between its members and high-level officials in 191 congressional offices. The study’s authors — Joshua L. Kalla and David E. Broockman of the University of California at Berkeley – note that, although it may seem obvious that campaign donations might influence governance, the precise connection has remained unclear:
Evidence that the public, donors, and organized interests believe contributions facilitate access to policy makers has continued to build, yet evidence establishing the causal link between contributions and policy makers’ actual behavior has been less forthcoming. Indeed, one of the few points of agreement in the literature on campaign finance is that the available evidence is insufficient for assessing the causal impacts of contributions, both in general … and with regard to access decisions specifically.
In the study’s field experiment, members of the political organization — CREDO Action, a liberal group with 3.5 million members — only sometimes revealed they were campaign donors in order to compare outcomes; to ensure a valid experiment, disclosure of that fact when seeking a meeting was assigned at random.
The study’s findings include:
- About half of the congressional offices granted meeting requests overall. However, it helped for the person seeking the meeting to announce he or she was a campaign donor: “Only 2.4% of offices arranged meetings with a member of Congress or chief of staff when they were told the attendees were merely constituents, but 12.5% did so when the attendees were revealed to be donors. In addition, 18.8% of the groups revealed to be donors met with any senior staffer, whereas only 5.5% of the groups described as constituents gained access to a senior staffer, a more than threefold increase.”
- Meetings with high-level officials proved much easier when a prior campaign donation was revealed along with a meeting request: “Members of Congress were more than three times as likely to meet with individuals when their offices were informed the attendees were donors, an over 200% increase in access. Putative donors were likewise more than 400% as likely to meet with either a member of Congress or a chief of staff. Strikingly, nearly all the meetings with chiefs of staff and members of Congress occurred in the Revealed Donor condition. When congressional offices were informed only that the attendees were their constituents, attendees very rarely gained access to officials at this level.”
“By virtue of having members who had given to political campaigns, the organization in this study was able to obtain far superior access to influential policy makers,” the authors conclude. “But not all organizations or individuals can be described as campaign contributors, as many Americans cannot afford to contribute to campaigns. The difference between how congressional offices reacted to the meeting requests when they were and were not aware that organization members had donated thus provides a window into the reception organized groups that contribute to campaigns receive in Washington, shedding light on how they succeed in influencing politics … and suggesting troubling implications for political equality.”
Keywords: money in politics, corruption, undue influence