When Money Talks, Congress Listens

With the Republican primary coming down to the wire, the candidates are running low on cash.

Thanks to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, Super PACs have sprung up, with no limit on how much they can spend. According to OpenSecrets.org, Super PACs have raised $153 million so far, prompting a renewed debate over the effect this money will have on policymaking.

Let’s begin with the obvious: Money matters.

In multiple studies, scholars have found that policymakers pay no attention to the views of the bottom third of income earners and that the views of the upper third receive 50 percent more weight than the middle third. Take a moment to consider just how undemocratic that is.

There are many reasons for this behavior, but here are a few.

First, 75 percent of campaign contributions come from the top 25 percent of income earners and only 2 percent come from the bottom 20 percent.

Second, the median individual net worth of legislators is approximately six times the median net worth for the general population.

Third, throughout history, less than 5 percent of legislators have come from the working class, while more than 75 percent of them have been lawyers and businesspeople (who only comprise 10 percent of the general population).

Fourth, it’s easier for concentrated powers like corporations and unions to organize large-scale lobbying efforts than for dispersed groups like the homeless or the unemployed.

And fifth, only the rich can afford lobbyists and personal access to policymakers.

As Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig points out in his new book Republic, Lost, legislators do not literally vote in exchange for money. That would be bribery, which is a crime. Instead, they listen to lobbyists whom they consider their friends. Maybe the lobbyist is an ex-employee or an ex-colleague or just a really smart, well-connected Washington insider. The lobbyist gives the legislator advice, and the legislator uses that advice to advance legislation that both of them support. It’s more like an exchange of gifts, says Lessig, than a cash transaction.

This is not a new theory. In the 1990s, social scientists Dan Clawson, Alan Neustadtl, and Mark Weller performed the most thorough investigation to date, interviewing hundreds of behind-the-scenes players in campaign fundraising. In their book Dollars and Votes, they concluded that the true value of money in politics is access to power. Only the top few percent can afford to take their case directly to policymakers, and that makes all the difference.

A few years ago, in the book Lobbying and Policy Change, a team of political scientists reported results from an unprecedented study where they tracked dozens of specific policies over time, including everyone who lobbied for or against the policies. The imbalance they found between the corporate elite and the rest of the population is stunning.

In a lobbying battle, the side with more high-level government allies won 78 percent of the time! Business corporations had a high-level government ally 74 percent of the time, compared to 45 percent for unions and 33 percent for citizen groups.

Similarly, the side with more “covered officials” lobbying won 63 percent of the time. Business corporations had a covered official lobbing 91 percent of the time, compared to 14 percent for unions and 24 percent for citizen groups.

“Where the mobilization of resources is unbalanced, we do find that the wealthy side tends to win,” they report. On average, business corporations spent $1 million on lobbying. Trade associations spent $1.3 million. Unions spent $0.5 million. Citizen groups spent $0.2 million.

Policy is made by the elite. Always has been.

You can overturn Citizens United. You can ban Super PACs. You can even institute public financing of elections. But you can’t take money out of politics.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t try. I’m saying this problem predates Super PACs. It goes so much deeper than lobbying and campaign contributions. The elite have always had the ear of Congress. They have always been Congress. They have always owned the media. They have always controlled the conversation. And they do not speak for us.

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This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.