A Primer: How Money Influences Congress

The idea that corporate interests are buying votes by sending a lobbyist to go meet with a member of Congress and to write a check so that they’ll vote the way they want is largely mythological. My Book is about getting beyond rhetoric and trying to deeply understand a system. That’s definitely the case when it comes to money and politics: it’s more complicated than buying votes, and if you’re interested in changing the system, you should understand how it works.

How Money Doesn’t Influence Politics

The maximum dollars an individual donor can give to a candidate in any given year is $5,000 – that’s $2500 to their primary campaign, and another $2500 to their general election campaign. There are ways increase this number – giving on behalf of your spouse or giving through a PAC, but these ways only get you up to a marginally larger number – so let’s say the most that you can possibly give directly to a candidate if you push the law and work really hard is $10,000.

And keep in mind, too that the candidate or member doesn’t see much of this money. They can only pay themselves a [salary that’s equal to salary of the office they’re seeking], and if they’re an incumbent, they can’t pay themselves anything. That money gets spent on campaign expenses, and while I grant you that many campaigns misappropriate funds, most do not, and those that do don’t appropriate them to benefit the candidate – they tend to appropriate them to benefit a corrupt treasurer.

In what rational world would a $10,000 contribution, only a fraction of which can come to a candidate, buy you a million dollar earmark? Or the destruction of an “industry threatening” policy like net neutrality? Right. The simple answer is that it doesn’t. The system is more complicated than that.

How Money Influences Politics

Buying Attention

The truth is that money doesn’t buy you votes. Instead, it buys access, attention, social proximity, and trust. The first thing money buys for a lobbyist is access. With a small contribution, a lobbyist can generally claim an open slot on a member’s calendar and talk to them about an issue they care about – whether it by the lobbyists from the Defenders of Wildlife talking about saving panda bears, or lobbyists from the Chamber of Commerce talking about why SOPA is good. In general, it’s easier for a donor non-constituent to get a meeting with a member than a non-donor non-constituent.

With enough meetings, this access and attention turns into social proximity and trust. It’s what makes former Senators and Members of Congress like Chris Dodd (now leading the charge on SOPA) incredibly effective lobbyists: he comes with a lot of social proximity and trust with a lot of members of Congress. You’re more inclined to listen to, consider, and vote with someone you trust than you are someone you don’t know, who blindly emailed you the same angry email that everyone else emailed you that you can’t be bothered to read.

It is impossible for a member to have mastery-level knowledge of every single thing they vote on. Frankly there are fewer than 435 people in the country that are experts at stem-cell research, Internet Technology, theology and religion, the Constitution, intellectual property law, sports medicine, native american culture, and federal procurement law, plus the very complicated rules of the House and Senate.

So when a law comes up, Congress must rely on expert testimony and opinion in order to figure out what’s right. Who gets called to make that expert testimony or to weigh in on that opinion? The Member of Congress says to their chief of staff: “Who do we know who knows a lot about this Internet stuff and content?” – the Chief of Staff either says “Well, I hear Chris Dodd works on that stuff now,” and Chris Dodd gets a phone call, or the Chief of Staff remembers meeting someone at a cocktail party that talked about that and invites them in to talk.

Buying Committees

Nobody but the President truly testifies before all of Congress. Most of this stuff happens when a bill is “in committee” – meaning when members of a committee are hearing testimony on a bill. When a bill is introduced, the Speaker refers it to a committee of his or her choosing that’s most applicable to the bill’s topic and breadth. All of the formal expert testimony for a bill happens when a bill is at the committee stage.

But how do committee assignments happen?

They’re chosen by the ranking member of each party based on seniority and prior committee experience, and what the member requests. But increasingly, these crucial seats are picked based on how much money a member raises for their respective parties. Here’s where the money is actually as transactional as you’d expect

If you’ve heard of the DNC or the GOP, what you might not know is that their primary responsibility is only electing their party’s presidential nominee every 4 years. Each chamber of the House also has their own “party committee” – the House Democrats have the DCCC, Republicans have the NRCC, Senate Dems have the DSCC and Republicans have the NRSC.

These committees charge “dues” to their elected members: money they’re expected to raise on behalf of their entire party, not just on behalf of themselves. The thing is, the more powerful you want to become in Congress, the more money you’re expected to raise on behalf of your party committee. So if you are a freshman member, and want that coveted appropriations seat, you’ll need to raise a certain amount of cash that’s much greater than if you want a seat on some boring non-powerful committee.

The effect is that the best seats are largely for sale to the biggest fundraisers. So the people on appropriations are the people that can raise the most money for their party, not the people who are the best at financial management. And that’s how you get the most whorish of Members accruing the most power in Congress, and why if you’re looking for examples of ethics investigations, Appropriations or Ways and Means are the places to look.

Independent Expenditures

There is also the world of independent expenditures, 527s, Super-PACs and other such things. This is how millions of dollars funnels its way into campaigns. The money spent on these campaigns though – the millions of dollars that are spent here are not spent on persuading members of Congress to vote. They’re spent on television advertisements persuading you to vote for a particular candidate or issue.

That’s the real rub with all of this: the money being spent on behalf of a member of Congress isn’t getting used to buy that member a new house it’s being used, primarily, on television ads that ensure that member gets to keep their job.

How To Stop It

Show Up. The best thing that you can do as a constituent to make your Representative pay more attention to you than to a lobbyist who is buying their attention is to show up in a meaningful way. The only reason a lobbyist is able to buy a meeting with a Member is because there’s an empty slot on their calendar where you’re supposed to be.

If something like SOPA is important to you, call your member of Congress, ask for the scheduler, and get yourself a meeting. The two advantages a lobbyist has on the average citizen is money and time, and the latter asset is far more valuable than the former. If you opt to spend some time engaging with your member of Congress, you’ll be doing your part to balance out the system.

The other thing you can do to stop it is to start tuning out. The Information Diet calls for cutting cable, canceling your cable subscription and moving to more internet based services, and for-pay, advertising free methods of entertainment. That’s one great way to make the need to raise funds for political advertisements go down: reducing the need for them.

Finally, there’s nothing stopping you from hiring a lobbyist or becoming one. Lobbying is a service just like anything else – the average wage of a decent lobbyist is about $100,000 in Washington, DC and while it’s nothing to scoff at, it’s certainly achievable for a small community to be able to afford their own full-time lobbyist, or to pay someone from their community a decent wage to go to Washington and be a full-time advocate.

Further Reading

Here are two academic papers on the subject of money and politics that takes a more scientific approach than your every day campaign finance reform rhetoric.

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