Money Buys Political Access, New Study Confirms

We can file this under news that should shock no one: a new study has found that members of Congress and their top staffers are significantly more likely to meet with political donors than with other constituents. 

The study – carried out by researchers at Yale and UC Berkeley in partnership with CREDO Action – sought to answer the question, just how much do donations buy access to elected officials in our political system?

Matea Gold at the Washington Post explains the experiment:

Last summer, a group of CREDO fellows e-mailed congressional offices seeking meetings to discuss the measure, sending one of two different form letters.

The first e-mail had the subject line: “Meeting with local campaign donors about cosponsoring bill.” The body of the e-mail said that about a dozen CREDO members “who are active political donors” were interested in meeting with the member of Congress in his or her home district to discuss the legislation.

The second e-mail stripped out the donor references and instead said “local constituents” were looking to meet the member of Congress.

…The e-mails went out to 191 members of Congress – all members of the same political party – who had not already co-sponsored the bill….The results: Only 2.4 percent of the offices made the member of Congress or chief of staff available when they believed those attending were just constituents, but 12.5 percent did when they were told the attendees were political donors. [emphasis added]

Huffington Post’s Amanda Terkel notes that the study could have implications for court cases like the infamous Citizens United v. FEC, which paved the way for unlimited corporate political spending. In the majority Citizens United opinion, Justice Kennedy argued that “independent expenditures do not lead to, or create the appearance of, quid pro quo corruption. In fact, there is only scant evidence that independent expenditures even ingratiate.”

Terkel points out that the new study may debunk the claim that there isn’t evidence that “independent expenditures,” such as those made to a super PAC rather than directly to a candidate, can curry favor with elected officials:

In this experiment, the lawmakers knew nothing about the donors, such as whether they had donated to their campaign in particular, or how much they gave and when. In fact, they could simply have been a donor to a super PAC.

Even so, the Supreme Court’s too-narrow understanding of “corruption” as tit-for-tat exchanges (for example, political bribes) may limit the study’s implications for Citizens United and cases like it.  But it does throw into stark relief how problematic the Court’s frame for understanding political corruption continues to be. When money can buy access to elected officials, we have a serious democracy problem.
 

PFAW Foundation