Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Asking the Wrong Question: Does Money Buy Public Policy?
A recent study put out by well meaning good government types at the University of Illinois illustrates the weaknesses in a lot of reform movement thinking.

The authors set out to discover whether big contributions from lawyers, horse racetrack owners, liquor and soft drink distributors, gamblers, and power plants impacted legislative votes. They uses fancy statistical methods to control for factors like legislator's ideology, party affiliation and whether or not they are from safe districts and will face little competition.

The research finds, not surprisingly, that "campaign contributions influence roll call votes and public policy in the Illinois General Assembly." No kidding?

The problem with this sort of analysis is that is presumes that it is somehow bad for people to use money to to influence how legislators vote on something, but fine for people to use money to influence whether or not voters should elected those legislators in the first place.

As an example, say a casino gives Joe Politician $5000 and Joe Politician then votes to allow more gambling, has public policy been bought?

The authors of this study would have us believe that the answer to that question lies in whether or not Joe Politician's judgment was swayed by the contribution. But, say we find out that Joe Politician believes in gambling. His daddy was a gambler, he's been gambling himself since junior high, and he sees nothing wrong with it. So, did the $5000 influence public policy?

The report authors would control for Joe Politician's ideology and conclude that in this case his vote wasn't bought by the $5000. He was voting his conscience.

But who cares? The real question is not whether Joe Politician was personally influenced by the campaign money, but in whether or not the constituents who live in Joe Politician's district agreed with the vote he cast in their name on the issue of gambling. If Joe Politician represents a district of nuns, schoolteachers, and do-gooders, and he wins election by using the $5000 get gets from the gamblers to outspend and defeat a candidate who would have voted against the casinos, then clearly public policy has been bought. On the other hand, if Joe Politician represents a bunch of gamblers, pool husslers, and blackjack dealers, then arguably the $5000 contribution didn't buy public policy in this instance.

The bottom line is this: powerful interests spend money on campaigns for two reasons. One, to influence how an elected official votes. Two, to influence how voters vote in elections. Different donors may have different motivations at different times. But, by focusing only on the first motivation, good government reformers miss at least half the picture, and arguably the most important half.

One thing's for sure. The big donors sure know what they get out of giving. And they keep giving more and more, so they must think they're getting their money's worth. That's more than the rest of us can say.

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