Money talks — but maybe not the way you think

July 16th, 2007 – 10:44 PM by D.J. Tice

This Washington Post piece makes an unusual point about the effects of political money.

It argues that contributions rarely change a politician’s position onmonopoly_guy.jpg issues, but may affect considerably which issues become priorities.

In short, conservatives are going to be more sympathetic to business interests, gun rights and pro-life issues, and liberals more attuned to labor, environmental, and pro-choice concerns, no matter who gives who money.

But which of his or her natural constituencies a politician works first and hardest for — that may be powerfully influenced by contributions.

The upshot: If you’re wondering why your issue isn’t making more progress, ask not what hated interest group is giving money to the opposition.

Ask what congenial interest groups are giving more than you are to your friends.

Make sense?

21 Responses to "Money talks — but maybe not the way you think"

Michael Blaine says:

July 17th, 2007 at 1:42 am

If we want truer, more functional democracy, campaigns need to be exclusively financed by the public, with low spending thresholds.

Michael Blaine

Justin C. Adams says:

July 17th, 2007 at 6:35 am

I’d say a better course of action, if your issue isn’t making progress like you’d like, is to be more obnoxious calling and writing your congresspeople, carry petitions, run for office yourself, write letters to the editor, and generally try to get the bums to come around to your position or help get them thrown out of office.

Basically, people allow a pluralist democracy here by disengaging and leaving it to the interest groups to persuade the power brokers. There is no law or reason why a more majoritarian version of our democracy cannot be realized – but to have a majority of the electorate show up to vote really isn’t enough. A majority of the electorate really has to get involved.

So if you already are writing letters to the editor, etc, a better question would be to ask your friends why they are not doing so.

Dora says:

July 17th, 2007 at 8:28 am

Justin, I think your approach works for local elected officials but doesn’t do much at the national level. You need the groups at the national level to organize the writing and petitions and calling because at that level the strength is in the numbers.

chester says:

July 17th, 2007 at 9:21 am

What we need is a good dose of common sense. Why in the world we look to change the laws regulating the rest of us than dealing with the few hundred Washington pro’s that seem to have any ethics is proof that we allow ourselves to be tricked by these same people. Is your representative taking a political bribe? Well, it’s not his fault– it’s semi legal! Let’s regulate you, so he isn’t tempted. Rediculous.

Let’s not forget also the power and influence of soft-money that never gets to your congressman. Take the last few Time magazine cover or lead stories:
“How the Democrats got Religion”
“The Bill and Hillary Show”
“The Case for Amnesty” and “America’s hidden workforce” in the same issue

These stories are timed to current events, but all follow a certain slant. They are lobbyists of the public and affect the sacred polls. Before we single-out the lobbyists, let’s not forget the perpretrators [the politicians] and the enablers [the agenda-driven press]

Justin C. Adams says:

July 17th, 2007 at 9:48 am

I agree, it is very difficult to make an impression as an individual on the national stage. Occasionally someone succeeds – witness the anti-war democrats during the 2006 nomination process for Sabo’s replacement – had it not been for Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer and some of his compatriots in the peace movement, Erlandson would likely have been nominated, but they were able to deliver their delegates to Ellison because he had the strongest anti-war, anti-Bush message among the viable choices.

I disagree that you need the groups though – I think it’s cutting off your nose to spite your face to abdicate the debate to interest groups. It just takes a long time and a lot of work, developing relationships in the right places (media, local and state officials) so that you can exert influence as an individual by proxy.

Don’t get me wrong. Most of the groups, whether I agree with them or not, do pretty good work on behalf of their causes. I just think that if ‘democracy’ is what we are to have, it takes a lot more from citizens than writing a check to an interest group.

john sherman says:

July 17th, 2007 at 10:14 am

I guess that explains why poverty issues never seem to go anywhere. If the people who can’t afford health insurance could just afford lobbyists.

I’ve been told that politicians actually pay attention to thoughtfully written, non astroturf letters, though I’m not sure I’ve seen much evidence of it.

Cutting the amount of money spent on campaigns would also reduce the number of annoying tv ads. As soon as an election gets near I pretty much lock my tv on PBS; all ads are annoying but political ads are probably the worst.

Dora says:

July 17th, 2007 at 11:04 am

I said nothing about abdicating the debate to the interest groups. The groups are made up of the individuals in them. I wasn’t referring to the ones that lobby on a specific issue. My comment specifically referred to organizing members to take action.

“it takes a lot more from citizens than writing a check to an interest group.”

I don’t disagree but as you yourself said, it takes a long time and a lot of work to exert influence as an individual. It’s like taking on a second job and not many people can spend that time and effort.

That’s where a group that spends the time in organizing and mobilizing is extremely useful and I would prefer to see many more citizens writing a check to that kind of an interest group.

Dora says:

July 17th, 2007 at 11:10 am

John, I lock my TV on HGTV during election season to avoid the ads. And I listen to my cd’s in the car instead of the radio.

I abhor the political ads. They are absolutely useless. There is nothing you can learn from them. Their only purpose as far as I can tell is to bash the other candidate mostly with nothing more than innuendo and misrepresentation. And the ‘feel good’ variety are just plain stupid.

chester says:

July 17th, 2007 at 11:13 am

The worst special interest group? The government employee. The taxpayer funds them and they will naturally vote for the party that does best for their job (see the organized labor lean stated in the original post).

Special interest groups that get voluntary funds and use those funds to influence opinion are good things. They are a collection of individuals speaking with a common voice and operating above board and beneath the law.

The growing collection of people who have a vested interest in politics not for the greater good but for their own bottom line and livlihood is a problem. Our process is polluted as this group has become a voting constituency of dependants.

John E Iacono says:

July 17th, 2007 at 11:53 am

On groups vs individual impact

If we look around, it seems pretty clear that anytime people want to accomplish something they gravitate toward finding like-minded individuals so they can work together to get it done.

Holds true whether we are talking about cleaning up a storm mess, getting labor representation, fixing up a park or a stream, or … passing a law.

The right to form these groups is one of the most powerful controls on any power block in a society.

I believe that for most politicians, all is fine unless the opposition ORGANIZES, in which case the issue becomes an instant headache.

City councils will listen bored to any individual, but let the neighborhood group pack the chambers, and now they HAVE to listen, because those are VOTES out there in the room. I find few politicians who are inclined to listen to one person, but most will listen to a group. And I believe the same holds true for the county, state, and national levels.

So I am all in favor of such groups, whether I agree with them or not, and I believe they have much more influence than the simple peddlers of money. See AARP, NRA, NOW, and a host of other familiar groups which are often short on money but long on active members.

John E Iacono says:

July 17th, 2007 at 11:57 am

Additional note:

It seems to me we tend to use pejorative names for these groups when we disagree with them, and cool or favorable names when we agree. Isn’t that just like in first grade?

I say the more the merrier, come one, come all — it spells involvement in how we are governed, in the most effective manner.

Les says:

July 17th, 2007 at 12:24 pm

Spending limits sound like a good idea on the surface, and I’m not against them, but I worry about a candidate getting our their positions to the masses if they are unable to advertise in the mass media. We all know that a high percentage of the voters dont do any research on the candidates before election day. I’d have to modify MB’s proposal to something like “here’s X dollars, that all you can spend, but at least 50% must be spent on propagating your postion, and only your postion, on the issues to the public”

The other problem with our current system that spending limits wont solve all by themselves is the “Who’s qualified for the public money?” question. Obviously we cant fund every Tom Dick or Sue who comes along and wants to run, so how should we vett the candidates? Using party endorsement? No, that to late, percentage of votes recieved in the last election? Excludes new faces on the scene. 1000 (or X percent) signatures from registered voters in the district. maybe, but what would be the number for national office?

Also on the down side, publicly funded campaigns muffles the voice of the people to some degree, as they loose the ability to support the campaign of their choosen candidate.

One thing I haven’t seen mentioned here is term limits. That too sounds like a good idea, but has it’s drawbacks (loss of continutity and expertise on issues). It’s advantage is it prevents congressional dynasties being built.

What about a law stating if you contribute to candidate A in a given race, you cannot contribute to candidate B, C or D in the same race. That would at least force corporations, special interest groups, and lobbyist to come down on one side of the other, rather than the current hedging of bets that’s going on.

Whatever the solution, we have to find something. We are headed towards a default “ruling class”, at least at the national level, if we allow it to take X tens of millions to get elected.

O.T. says:

July 17th, 2007 at 12:59 pm

chester- good post. I agree as when I was in the union, I would always question why when three-fourths of the union body is republican, why does our union give money only to dems? the union body has nearly no say in where there money goes. i just read about how the ny firefighters are up in arms becuz their prez put out that rudy hit piece which is full of lies and innacuracies when the majority of their brothers are repub. makes no sense!

Jay says:

July 17th, 2007 at 1:13 pm

“the union body has nearly no say in where there money goes.”

But I don’t understand how that’s possible, O.T………I thought the unions are always “looking out for the members”….?

O.T. says:

July 17th, 2007 at 4:51 pm

Pleez!, even the local prez’s have no power, it all comes from the national leaders who are beholden to democrats.

Krogy says:

July 17th, 2007 at 5:29 pm

No doubt about it, money talks. Sometimes it talks so loud that people can’t be heard. I find it ironic that the one politician who seems to be suffering most from the McCain-Feingold bill is Senator McCain.

Justin C. Adams says:

July 18th, 2007 at 3:04 pm

It seems to me that if you qualify for the GENERAL ELECTION ballot, you should qualify for direct payment of public funds, with an equal amount for each candidate based on the office they have qualified for.

While it is true that it is left to the states to set the ‘time and manner’ of elections, there are a few other provisions which empower the federal government to regulate the ‘manner’ as well. Full faith and credit would seem to say a candidate qualified in any state could be qualified in every state by act of congress. The guarantee of a republican form of government could be dusted off and used to ensure “one man, one voice” among ballot qualified candidates. There are others too, but enough of this.

It seems to me that a program like the Contribution Refund Progam we have here, where the first $50 you give to any candidate who had registered to run for office is refundable by the state to the contributor (who must be an individual), could be rolled out on the federal level and be open to any tom dick or harry prior to the events which qualify a person for the General Election ballot (primaries, caucuses, pettition deadlines).

This would allow both for mass media expenditures for the “real” candidates, and allow new people to come onto the scene.

Justin C. Adams says:

July 18th, 2007 at 3:15 pm

Dora says:
“I don’t disagree but as you yourself said, it takes a long time and a lot of work to exert influence as an individual. It’s like taking on a second job and not many people can spend that time and effort. ”

I say, such people aren’t making it a priority to have a democracy and get what they deserve.

But I wasn’t saying groups which organize letter writing campaigns should be excluded from the process or that people shouldn’t belong to them. I think there are great organizations, even if I happen to disagree with what some of them are organized.

I’m speaking more of direct financial action by these groups – contributing to candidates committees or using money for the purpose of speech directly (mass media buys, this kind of thing).

Perhaps I should have said that people should ask their friends why they are not involved with a letter writing/sign carrying/telephone-bank-calling drive.

Justin C. Adams says:

July 18th, 2007 at 3:22 pm

I agree with you about groups which organize individuals to take actions. I used and overly broad brush to paint above… I was referring to lobby groups and groups which do not always act according to the opinions of their individual members (OT’s point is valid above). I also think all these groups could be safely barred from directly contributing to candidates or making mass media advertising purchases.

Simply writing a check to even one of the good groups, though, isn’t enough for my conception of civic participation. If you don’t have time to be personally involved seeing to it that you are governed well, you deserve the government you get.

Dora says:

July 18th, 2007 at 4:30 pm

“I say, such people aren’t making it a priority to have a democracy and get what they deserve.”

I say, that’s a bit harsh.

Civic participation is not something that is a high priority in any school. Let’s face it, other than memorizing dates of wars and fairly useless information like that there isn’t much anybody really learns about what makes good government or the responsibility of citizen participation in government.

You and I know that people don’t really have any conception of the differences in city, county, and state government. They are always confused about what taxes are collected and how they are spent. Sure, it’s easy to say well then they should go out and educate themselves. But you don’t know what you don’t know so how do they even start?

And there are people with life circumstances that just doesn’t afford them the ability to spend the time and effort it takes.

I also say that there is something for everybody to do. If all they can do is contribute to a group or a campaign then at least they are doing that. Not everybody can (or even should) do telephone banking. Some people are absolutely terrible at it. And some people are terrible letter writers too.

I don’t think it’s your place or my place to call someone who doesn’t do what you think they should do bad citizens. Which is what you’re doing by telling them if you don’t get involved in phone/letter/sign waving drive you don’t deserve to be governed well.

If a person talks to their neighbor about a candidate or puts a sign in their yard, I’d take that as acceptable participation over just griping and sitting in front of the TV.

John E Iacono says:

July 19th, 2007 at 4:34 pm

On unions,

My daughter’s teachers union is a lot like OT’s. Those who don’t support a democratic candidate grumble about the forced contribution with no say in where it goes.

Perhaps the law could demand that members of a union (or other organization, for that matter) be allowed a checkoff directing where they want their mandatory contributions to go?

It would also present a truer picture of the views of their members, and prevent the lock-step actions we now see so often.

(Just imagine what would happen if the trial lawyers had to do it.)

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