Is Campaign Finance Political Porn?

Campaign Finance ReformDespite relentless rhetoric from reformers, it is just about impossible (and still illegal) to buy a politician in America today. And it is becoming increasingly difficult to even rent one, which partly explains why those interested in the political process see lobbying as a better investment than campaign contributions.

The predictable media stories linking donor industries with candidates are the soft porn of the political press, promising incredible titillation and delivering lists of meaningless, largely predictable numbers.

As a rule, the criticism comes from those who don’t contribute substantial amounts and try to compensate by making casual assumptions about what motivates those who do. Political donors can point to precious few policy victories. At best, they get the same thing Donald Trump got. When asked how a process he deems corrupt works, he pointed out that Hillary Clinton would not have attended his latest wedding had he not donated to her campaign.

The real reasons people give donations are pretty basic and intuitive: They give to people who agree with them.

If someone believes there should be no abortion or corporate income tax in America, they give to candidates who share those views. I think that accurately describes Cruz contributors, who see a candidate talking about issues they care about.

If they believe that the best things in life — like good medical care and higher education — should be free, they give to someone like Bernie Sanders, who shares that perspective.

Those who are more calculating and play a less ideological game tend to give to those who they think will win, however modestly interests overlap. That’s why money tends to cascade in after an election victory. (It’s also why lobbying is a better investment: No money is wasted on losers.)

We give to those who have a shared expertise in our field and the power to something about it. Food processors and agricultural co-ops make donations to members of the agricultural committees, wasting little on politicians who focus on defense policy and tend to speak an entirely different language.

For those with power and expertise, money tends to come in over the transom irrespective of how they vote.

Sometimes motivation is slightly more oblique. Wall Street understandably supports Sen. Chuck Schumer, who’s on the Finance Committee that makes tax policy decisions, is the Senator from New York, and likely the next Democratic Senate leader. If he requests check for a candidate from Idaho who aspires to membership on the Agriculture Committee once elected, they may comply in an effort to strengthen links to the guy doing the ask.

From my perspective, none of these motives are corrupt, a word that increasingly seems to to translate as “something I don’t like.”

The real test is whether this money is influencing policy that has an impact on us. So far I’m unaware of anyone finding such a link. Political contributions can impact more modest decisions where the official has no preconceived opinions. Such issues are generally new, technical, and quite parochial, and not partisan in the usual ways.

All of this shouldn’t be construed of a defense of the status quo. Campaigns are too expensive. Politicians are forced to spend a lot of time raising money that would better be spent governing better. And, sadly, it isn’t unprecedented for partisans to delay action on an issue solely maximize donations. These are problems, but fairly modest ones compared to the allegations that all our politicians are “bought”.

It’s extremely difficult to see how today’s political decisions are distorted by the flow of political money. Voters support candidates who share their interests. Donors follow the same logic.


For 16 years, Jim Jaffe worked for House Democrats who served on the Ways and Means Committee, apprenticing with Representatives Green, Gibbons and Gephardt before working for Chairman Dan Rostenkowski.


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