The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How money talks in state legislatures

(Karen Tumulty/Wonkblog)

[Joshua Tucker: As Americans head to the polls Tuesday, we are pleased to welcome the following guest post from University of Rochester political scientist Lynda Powell based on research from her new book “The Influence of Campaign Contributions in State Legislatures," which was awarded the American Political Science Association’s 2013 Richard F. Fenno, Jr. Prize for the best book on legislative politics.]


Despite a widespread perception that political contributions buy legislative influence, political science has largely failed to find evidence to support this conclusion. Most of us who study campaign finance would agree that contributions seldom influence roll call votes — the up or down choices that determine the passage of legislation. Bills come to a vote after a lengthy period of negotiation and revision over their content. Lawmakers’ votes are primarily based on ideology, partisanship and constituency interests. Since studies seeking to find the influence of contributions generally analyze these votes, it is not surprising they fail to find a connection between contributions and political influence.

What voting studies cannot detect are the important, but less observable, pathways where money is more likely to shape legislation. Members have many opportunities, especially in the committee process, to structure the details of legislation to a donor’s advantage. Often subtle changes, even altering the wording of a single sentence, can matter to a contributor. Equally important, studying votes ignores the opportunities lawmakers have to kill a bill quietly and prevent it from coming to a vote. As Tom Loftus, former Speaker of the Wisconsin Assembly stated, “The truest thing I can say about special interest money is that it is mainly given to buy the status quo.” Unfortunately, unlike votes on bills, these actions don’t leave a readily observable data trail for us to study.

In many fields, scholars turn to perceptual survey measures when hard data measures are unobtainable. Surveys are routinely used, for example, in comparative politics to measure the left-right placement of political parties as well as to develop indices of country-level corruption. I took a similar approach to study the influence of donors in American legislatures. In a national survey of 2982 state legislators, I asked each member to rate the extent to which campaign contributions determined the content and passage of bills in his chamber. I used this question to estimate influence in each state legislative chamber, while controlling for respondent bias. I found the 99 chambers varied greatly in the influence of money: there was considerable influence in some and very little in others.

My book, “The Influence of Campaign Contributions in State Legislatures,” explains these chamber differences in influence. Studying the 99 state chambers rather than Congress allowed me to model how political and institutional features of legislatures, such as term limits, affect the individual choices lawmakers make about how much time to devote to fundraising. (Each lawmaker was asked how much time he spent fundraising for his own campaign and for his caucus.) The model posits, and analysis confirms, that the more time lawmakers spend fundraising, the greater the influence of contributions in their chambers. That is, the more members engage in either type of fundraising, the more they, and consequently their chambers, prioritize the interests of donors.

A small number of factors explain much of the variation among the chambers in both fundraising time and donor influence. States with professionalized legislatures generally have large constituency sizes, highly paid members and professional leadership structures; it is in chambers in these states that members spend considerable time fundraising and donors are more influential. Contributors also have more influence in larger chambers, simply because there are more lawmakers engaged in fundraising. Chambers differ greatly in the fraction of members who anticipate running for other offices: the more electorally ambitious members, the more fundraising and the greater donor influence. Term limits exist in many state legislatures and while limited tenure decreases fundraising for reelection, it reduces donors influence less than might be expected. Term-limited lawmakers are especially likely to anticipate running for other offices, and these ambitions cancel much of the otherwise beneficial effect of term limits in reducing fundraising time and donor influence. Finally, contributors are less influential in states with more highly educated citizens, perhaps because such constituencies are better able to monitor and hold their representatives accountable in elections.

Campaign contributions do influence the legislative process — the more time lawmakers spend fundraising, the greater the influence. Most lawmakers dislike fundraising. It is the incentive structures that exist in some legislatures that cause members to spend so much time raising money. If we wish to diminish the considerable influence donors gain in these legislative chambers, we should identify ways to mitigate the institutional incentives that drive legislative fundraising and, consequently, donor influence.