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.