A Republic For Sale: Buying Political Favor Through Corporate Lobbying

A Republic For Sale: Buying Political Favor Through Corporate Lobbying

Written by Aseem Prasher
Published 1 January 2019

(Banner image credit: OtherWords.org)

“One of the necessary accompaniments of capitalism in a democracy is political corruption.”
Upton Sinclair

While direct donations to a political candidate from a third party draw copious amounts of attention, lobbyists hosting fundraisers for such candidates bring far less. This article focuses on uncovering behind-the-curtains ‘partnership’ of fundraising lobbyists and our lawmakers.

It is common sense that any individual will incline to vote for a politician who promises to introduce legislation that somewhat and somehow benefits that individual. Therefore, why would someone feed a campaign from their own pocket and not expect anything in return, or host a full-fledged fundraising event without anticipating a favor in the future?

Exposing such types of relationships is a rather hard task to accomplish, as it is difficult to determine that the favors ‘granted’ to interest group lobbyists in such a process were intentional or coincidental. In other words, it could be challenging to figure out that specific legislation that a sitting member of Congress votes for and a certain lobbyist hoped for, is because the congressman actually cared about the bill and made a decision themselves considering public welfare or if the lobbyist influenced their vote through a fundraiser. The latter situation is a clear case of exchange of favors and conflict of interest.

In a recent report published by the University of Utah, a research study used uncommon data sources and plagiarism software to observe the relationship between interest group lobbyists and members of Congress. The report studied letters written by lobby groups to Senate committees regarding legislative amendments. Comparison of these letters revealed similar (and in some cases, identical) language, rendering concrete evidence the lobby groups persuaded committee members to introduce amendments preferred by the groups. Additionally, the study advised that the language used in these requesting letters was more likely to be identical when the lobby groups hosted a fundraiser for the Senator.

The study concluded that a Senator is approximately 3.5 times more likely to introduce a group’s written request when the group hosted one or more fundraisers for the Senator than when they did not. These odds are even higher when it is controlled for whether the Senator and the group are predisposed to agree ideologically. This indicates that Senators and members of Congress tend to grant more favors to groups that provide them with financial aid (fundraising) than groups they share a political ideology with.

Who else could know better about corruption in the Senate than Senators themselves? John McCain made a different yet intriguing argument on the same topic. McCain’s views convey that the almighty dollar not only influences a member’s legislative decisions but also creates a subconscious ‘pull’. When asked about corruption in the Congress in 1999, McCain said:

“I have personally experienced the pull from campaign staff alerting me to a call from a large donor. I do not believe that any of us privileged enough to serve in this body would ever automatically do the bidding of those who give. I do not believe that contributions are corrupting in that manner. But I do believe they buy access. I do believe they distort the system. And I do believe, as I noted, that all of us, including myself, have been affected by this system.”

A 2013 study conducted by Eleanor Nowell of Yale University confirmed the above findings and assessed the impact of fundraising that members of Congress do for each other. The study used a new dataset of preeminent appearances at congressional fundraising events and a new measure of legislative support. When ideological similarities of their past voting records were controlled, a Democratic congressperson is 5.5% more likely to vote for a legislative amendment for each fundraiser the bill’s sponsor has headlined for them in the past. The likeliness of a Republican congressperson to do so was found to be 2.5% more. While these results may seem to have little effect on an individual level, all donations to all the members and all the issues, once accumulated, substantiate a strong relationship between fundraising assistance and posterior legislative voting behavior.

According to the Congressional Research Service’s 2015 appropriations report, corporations now spend more than $2.6 billion per year on reported lobbying expenditures. The biggest enterprises now have upwards of 100 lobbyists representing them, which allows these corporations to have access from everywhere and anywhere. Moreover, 95% of the of the organizations that spend the highest on lobbying are business concerns.

Lobbying has become an integral part of the political arena in recent decades, and due to the influence and access it buys, to some extent, has conquered the American democracy. It only seems natural for a sitting member to return favors to those who help them stay in the office. However, at the end of the day, the general public expects its representatives in Congress to prioritize public welfare and make the right decisions in all cases of moral and ethical conflicts. For any compromise made on mere fundamentals is a surrender, as it is all give and no take.


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  • Daryl Muenchau 2 Jan 4:37 pm

    Assessing impacts of campaign contributions is frustratingly complicated. Some analyses indicate the typical return on investment is small to undetectable, e.g., https://scholar.harvard.edu/jsnyder/files/8._cf.return.regs__0.pdf . Some or most analyses like that may be missing a bigger point, which is the appearance of a quid pro quo or conflict of interest. Some of the loss of trust in public institutions, especially congress, is due to a public perception of corruption, regardless of whether there is corruption or not. Appearances count. How does one measure the social damage that inflicts?

    America’s enemies, in particular Russia, have figured ways to undermine public trust in America’s democratic institutions with a goal of weakening liberal democracy and strengthening global authoritarianism. There is no reason that America’s enemies will not use the public perception of corruption as a weapon against democratic institutions or targeted politicians. There are no rules in that kind of warfare.

    One bit of evidence that suggests there is a significant return on investment, regardless of impacts on stock prices or other measures of business value, is the fact that the business sector fought against laws that try to (i) limit contributions, or (ii) make the source of contributions more transparent. If business campaign contributions did not yield a return on investment, then why bother to contribute at all? If a business needed to access a politician, all they need to do is call the politician’s office, explain who they are and set up a meeting.

    Of course, the Citizens United decision has significantly altered the landscape and made opacity easier for some kinds of contributions. America is moving in a direction where the appearances of corruption, if not the actuality, are increasing. That will lead to continuing public distrust in our democratic institutions and in turn that advances the global interests of kleptocratic authoritarians. As far as I am aware, analyses of the impacts of campaign financing do not take these broader, but very real, concerns into account. If that assessment is correct, then one can argue that researchers who analyze impacts of campaign finance on American democracy and democratic institutions are ignoring a major cause of social damage, namely, loss of public trust in pro-democratic institutions and a significant gain in public acceptance of kleptocratic authoritarianism.

    One can ask, is there any evidence to support that? One can argue that, (i) President Trump, and (ii) anti-democratic moves toward single party (republican) rule in Wisconsin, North Carolina, Michigan and some other states constitute solid evidence that the American people are warming up to the idea of a corrupt authoritarian form of government.

    Perceptions of corruption arising from campaign contributions will not go away, even if the issue is more illusion than reality. Until policy makers wake up and recognize that fact, America will continue its slow slide toward the failure of the American experiment.

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