No, Vance McAllister did not just reveal startling Congressional corruption

Rep. Vance McAllister (R-La.) has an unfortunate ability to make news when he isn't trying to. If the name sounds familiar, it's because he was caught on tape kissing a staffer. (Perhaps in part because the staffer was not his wife, McAllister is not seeking reelection.)


McAllister. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

And now, a story in The Ouachita Citizen last week, reporting that McAllister implied that he and other members of Congress cast a vote on a measure with the anticipation that they'd get a campaign contribution in return. The salient excerpt:

McAllister said he voted "no" on legislation related to the Bureau of Land Management though he did not identify the bill. McAllister said a colleague on the House floor told him that he would receive a $1,200 contribution from Heritage Foundation if he voted against the bill. He would not name his colleague since he “did not want to put their business out on the street.”

“I played dumb and asked him, ‘How would you vote?’” McAllister said. “He told me, ‘Vote no and you will get a $1,200 check from the Heritage Foundation. If you vote yes, you will get a $1,000 check from some environmental impact group.’”

McAllister said the answer was a "surprise."

The story was picked up by Talking Points Memo on Monday and subsequently blew up on Reddit, where tales of Congressional corruption — particularly involving Republicans — are catnip.

But the story, as such stories go, isn't quite that simple. On Sunday, McAllister explained to Lafayette's Daily Advertiser that his comments were taken "entirely out of context."

“I have never cast a vote with the expectation or anticipation of receiving any money for a vote,” McAllister told Gannett Louisiana. “I was just trying to illustrate how much money controls Washington, D.C., and the reporter took the comments totally out of context.”

"Totally" is probably an exaggeration, but the impression of a quid pro quo relationship — the term favored in the comments on that Reddit article — makes little sense on its face.

The apparent assumption is that McAllister's colleague cast the no vote on the BLM-related bill in order to get that $1,200 check from Heritage. (Though, as the news articles point out, the Heritage Foundation itself doesn't make political contributions anyway.) McAllister won a special election last year for Louisiana's 5th Congressional District after raising nearly a million dollars. One thousand $1,000 contributions. That's a lot of thrown votes! Or, alternately: Why throw a vote and violate the law for one-one-thousandth of your campaign fundraising?

This idea, that members of Congress trade contributions for votes, is a pernicious one and misunderstands the relationship between money and politics.

Donors cut checks in response to votes they like. Donors also give warning that they will exact various levels of punishment if politicians don't vote the way that they want, punishments that can include withholding donations or targeting a politician for ouster. These threats aren't idle, but there's little reason to think that in most cases they're particularly severe. The difference between threatening to primary someone and actually  primarying them and winning the primary is very, very wide, and politicians know it.

McAllister, were he staying in Congress, would certainly want to preserve a good relationship with the Heritage Foundation, but mostly because he's a conservative Republican who would like their endorsement. But he could probably survive without it. He wouldn't need to vote "no" on a BLM bill to get a critical $1,000 check, and it's unlikely that Heritage or other conservative groups would target him with a primary because of that vote. (It's also unlikely that there are many environmental groups that have the financial resources to drop $1,000 checks on every helpful vote from every helpful elected official, but that's another issue.)

Where money is most influential in politics is probably in building relationships. McAllister and his colleague certainly know who and what the Heritage Foundation is. For lesser known organizations, ones with less clearly defined political priorities, a check is a good way to get an audience. A study reported earlier this year found that elected officials' offices were more likely to take meetings with people who identified themselves as donors, and that the resulting meetings involved higher-level staff. That's the demonstrable access that money gives you — especially when coupled with sponsored trips or special events or hosting fundraisers. More time to talk to elected officials about why that BLM vote should be a "nay."

There's a lot to question about how money and votes overlap. But Vance McAllister's comments aren't the smoking gun you might be looking for.

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He previously wrote for The Wire, the news blog of The Atlantic magazine. He has contributed to The Daily Beast, The Atlantic, The Daily, and the Huffington Post. Philip is based in New York City.
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