How money dominates Congress

It has become a cliche of sorts to say that money dominates Congress. Lobbyists, donors, and Super PACs saturate the political environment and the rhetoric surrounding it. Although we all seem to know that money runs the government, very seldom does someone explain precisely how it does so.

This weeks episode of This American Life, Take the Money and Run for Office, gives one of the best and most approachable run downs of how the money system works in Washington. I encourage you to listen to the whole thing if you have the time. If you do not have time, the following is a brief rundown of the highlights.

As soon as individuals are elected to Congress, they start fundraising for the next campaign. They need to do this in order to win re-election. Fundraising is very grueling, and generally involves the representative grinding up to $15,000 per day out of friends, past donors, and lobbyists. There are even buildings around the U.S. Capitol set up precisely for members of Congress to call people and ask for money. Some spend 2-3 hours a day doing this.

One way to short-circuit the grueling phone-banking process is to call on lobbyists and ask them to throw a fundraiser for you. This involves a lobbyist setting up a breakfast, lunch, dinner, or cocktail outing and inviting a number of other lobbyists to show up, all of whom pay $500, or some other amount, to be there. The member of congress shows up, collects the checks, and the lobbyists get an audience with the member. These events happen all day every day.

Some members of Congress hold committee positions that make them particularly valuable for lobbyists, e.g. those on the Ways and Means Committee and the Financial Services Committee. Because lobbyists are more likely to lavish money on those members, the representatives who get those committee positions are expected to leverage those positions to raise money for their party as well as for themselves. Those who fail to raise a great deal of money in those valuable positions risk being replaced by party leaders.

So, members of Congress face fundraising pressures from political parties and from their re-election bids, and they often rely on lobbyists and donors to relieve those pressures. As Barney Frank remarks in the episode, you would have to be a fool to think that these donations do not affect voting decisions. On the majority of issues that the general public has no opinion about or knows nothing about, donations doubtlessly impact the way representatives vote.

The next part of the episode focuses on Super PACs, entities that can collect money anonymously and spend it on political campaigns. Made legal by the Citizens United decision, Super PACs can spend an unlimited amount of anonymous money on any political campaign they would like. The only restriction is that they do so independently, not in coordination with any political candidates or campaign. The idea that Super PACs do not coordinate with campaigns is of course ridiculous, but so it goes.

Given how small time some congressional elections are, Super PACs can throw close elections one way or another very easily. In one case reported in the episode, Karl Rove’s Super PAC spent over half a million dollars on ads trashing a Democratic candidate at the very end of a close congressional campaign. The Democratic candidate narrowly lost, and it is speculated that the unmatched media blitz against him had a lot to do with that.

The power to dump unlimited amounts of money into any election gives Super PACs even more power than is immediately obvious. In addition to swaying elections, Super PACs could plausibly force politicians to vote a certain way by merely threatening to ruin them in re-election. Candidates may very easily be persuaded to vote a certain way if doing so will mean keeping a million dollars of attack ads off the air.

Finally, Super PACs force candidates to raise even more money than they already do. The threat that an outside Super PAC will dump an unlimited amount of money into a race forces candidates to be prepared. Being prepared means having an even greater stockpile of money at the ready, and therefore more fundraising and all of the corruption that plagues that process.

The episode goes into more detail, but those are the basics. Money dominates politics in the United States, and it is hard to imagine that changing anytime soon.