Campaign Contributions Change Priorities, Not Beliefs

By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, July 16, 2007

There are two ways to think about the staggering amounts of money given by special interest groups to politicians -- the type of contributions that were detailed for the last quarter in reports filed yesterday by presidential candidates and members of Congress.

The conventional take on these donations might be called the "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" version. This widely held view is that campaign contributions basically buy politicians.

Through the first quarter of this year, according to data about presidential race contributions from the Center for Responsive Politics, real estate groups gave Mitt Romney $1.6 million, education groups gave Barack Obama $696,000, casinos gave Rudy Giuliani $118,000 and the entertainment industry gave Hillary Clinton $794,000.

The conventional view, at least implicitly, is that these donations are designed to sway candidates who win elections in the direction of groups who gave them money.

Richard Hall used to think this way, too. But many years ago, Hall came to Washington on a fellowship to work for then-Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). Hall and Daschle were fired up about a hunger relief bill that was working its way through Congress. It was not an issue that resonated with many of Daschle's constituents -- but it was an issue the senator cared about deeply, and Hall was enthusiastic to work on an issue that touched his conscience.

As Hall worked on amendments and helped deal with the minutiae of moving a bill through Congress, however, the outlines of a drought emerged in the eastern part of South Dakota. Daschle told Hall that they needed to do something to help the dairy farming industry. Hall put the hunger relief bill on hold and began working on a measure to help farmers. He summoned lobbyists from the dairy industry to craft proposals. Both Daschle and Hall intended to come back to the hunger relief bill as soon as the dairy issue was wrapped up.

By the time Hall finished his Washington fellowship, he had gotten a lot accomplished to help dairy farmers. But the hunger relief bill was still sitting on his desk.

The anecdote, says Hall -- now a prominent political scientist at the University of Michigan who has studied the role that money plays in politics -- is a perfect illustration of the real effect of campaign contributions and lobbying. Campaign contributions and lobbyists do not buy politicians' opinions as much as they buy their priorities.

Sure, there are always going to be sleazy politicians who think of donations as bribes. But these are the exception, not the rule. By looking at the issue of money in politics in moralistic terms, Hall says, both politicians and the public fail to recognize what is truly insidious about these donations.

Daschle did not stop caring about hunger because he was working on dairy issues. And he did not start working on dairy issues merely because of campaign contributions. He genuinely cared about dairy issues, too. Money that people in the dairy industry spent on campaign contributions and lobbying did not have to buy Daschle's views -- he was in their corner to begin with. But what campaign contributions and the subsidization of legislative work that lobbyists provide do obtain is a subtle alteration in politicians' priorities, Hall said.

" 'Corruption' is not the right word. There has been contamination in the deliberation in the office but the politician and the staffer never see it," Hall said. "They just see the lobbyist as helping them and so does the lobbyist."

This explains why the vast majority of campaign contributions from special interest groups go to politicians who already agree with the groups making the donations -- antiabortion groups, for example, give nearly all their money to Republicans and abortion rights groups give nearly all their money to Democrats. If such donations were meant to be bribes, wouldn't these groups give money to candidates and politicians who were on the fence or on the other side? Why do you need to bribe people who agree with you?

Hall said that when special interest groups make donations or lobby the president and legislators, the pitch is never, "Here's some money to change your vote," but rather, "Here is an issue to work on that will appeal to your constituents." Politicians go along with the proposals precisely because such work does help their constituents. The only problem, of course, is that by focusing on some constituents, the politician no longer has time to focus on issues that help other constituents. Politicians may feel they are in the corner of both wealthy and poor constituents, but the money that flows into politics tends to get them to prioritize the concerns of the wealthy and the organized over those who are marginalized.

"There is a loser," Hall said. "Whatever else the legislator would be doing gets lost . . . I don't get to the 15th thing on my list, but I don't know what the 15th thing is and I don't know if I would have gotten to it anyway. There is a distortion of priorities, but there is no ethical violation."

One implication of this insight is that when donors and partisans scan the second-quarter filings for the 2008 presidential race, they should spend less time checking out who is funding their opponent, as is the wont of donors and partisans. When it comes to governing, the real threat to having a leader represent your issues will come from other people, championing different issues, who have given money to your candidate -- especially the ones who have given more money than you.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company