After the Senate narrowly — historically narrowly — voted to approve the Cabinet nomination of Betsy DeVos, opponents of her nomination presented a theoretical rationale: money.
DeVos and her well-connected and deep-pocketed family had given thousands of dollars to members of the Senate. Because we all know how powerful money is in politics, it’s no wonder she was confirmed!
If you’re looking to make a point about the power of campaign contributions, though, this is a spectacularly bad example. Allow me to walk through why.
First of all, the dollar amounts presented in that tweet from the liberal Center for American Progress are 1) cumulative and 2) from multiple donors. DeVos herself gave the federal maximum to Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics — $2,700. Other than that, nothing. This misses a lot of possible forms of giving: party committees, independent expenditures and so on. But even taking that $49,200 figure given to Scott at face value and applying it to the total amount he raised in his most recent cycle, that would be 0.4 percent of Scott’s total. If all of that DeVos money were contributed in the last cycle.
Let’s take the five senators who received the most from DeVos (and her husband and their political partners, as included in the CAP data). If we assume that all of that giving was in the most recent cycle — which it wasn’t — here’s how the DeVos dollars stack up against the senators’ total fundraising.
We’re meant to assume that those tiny slivers — amounts that the senators could easily have done without — are what drove their votes for DeVos?
But if that’s the case, what about Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska)? She received more money from the DeVos clan than nine other Republicans on that list. But she voted against DeVos’s nomination! In fact, more senators who didn’t receive money from DeVos and her family voted for her than senators who did get money. (The counts? From those getting money, 23 ayes. From those getting no money, 29.) Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) also got no money and voted no. So what’s the role that the money played?
Murkowski received more money than Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). Her most recent campaign raised $6 million; his raised $30.8. He needed money more, but got less — but still voted for her. Is it possible that … maybe … money … wasn’t the determining factor?
Our graphics team put together a great look at the increase in “no” votes on Cabinet nominees in recent years. Here’s the long-term trend.
All those “no” votes for Barack Obama overlap with another trend that’s peaking: Partisanship.
We’re in a golden age of partisanship, in which perceptions of the president’s performance by party and polarization on Capitol Hill have both continuously widened.
There were more “no” votes against Obama nominees because Republicans used Cabinet picks as a point of leverage and pressure against the Democratic White House, pleasing their active base. If Democrats controlled the Senate, DeVos would have lost her confirmation. There’s every reason to believe that McConnell let Collins and Murkowski vote “no” on DeVos for political reasons, holding enough votes in reserve to assure she’d win. The motivation was partisan support for a Republican nominee, not that a small fraction of his past campaign financing depended on DeVos’s generosity.
There was a role that money played in getting DeVos into the Cabinet: Her family’s money helped provide an entree into the political world. Donations don’t generally buy votes, they buy relationships. DeVos spent years building those relationships, and those relationships ended up putting her in front of the president-elect of the United States.
McConnell would have voted for a sentient rhinoceros to fill the Cabinet seat if Trump had proposed it, because he is the leader of the Republican caucus and that is his job. Other Republicans would have joined him. I’m sure McConnell appreciates that $36,400 from DeVos and her family, but it was $36,400 that they didn’t need to spend for the vote Tuesday.