Despite the fact that the public continues to believe that campaign contributions have an outsize influence on policymaking, a growing number of scholars have begun to argue that contributions don’t have much impact on policy, if any.1 Jumping on the bandwagon, some commentators have also chimed in, contending that contributions don’t really matter.2 But is this true? Does research really suggest that contributions don’t have much impact? (And, by extension, does it imply that contributions don’t matter?) Put simply: No.
For those who argue that contributions don’t matter, the basic argument they present is as follows: The research literature on contribution influence is mixed; some studies show influence, but some do not. As such, the evidence is “thin,” at best.3 This means that (logical leap) contributions don’t really matter, and those who argue otherwise risk being derided as “dishonest scholars” (as lamented by Lawrence Lessig).4
Yet as I discovered in a critical review I recently wrote for Sociology Compass,5 the research literature in fact shows quite conclusively that contributions do influence policy. Probably the strongest evidence is found in two recent meta-analyses—one by Roscoe and Jenkins, and one by Stratmann.6 (Meta-analysis involves conducting analysis on data or results from already-published studies in a field to determine if there is a consensus.) Both meta-analyses looked at dozens of studies—nearly the entirety of the existing research literature—and reached the same conclusion: contributions significantly influence policy. To quote from the studies, Roscoe and Jenkins say that “a reasonable conclusion” from their analysis “is that one in three roll call votes exhibits the impact of campaign contributions.”7 Stratmann states his conclusion more strongly: “This meta-analysis reverses the finding reported in existing studies that campaign contributions have no effect on legislative voting behavior. The meta-analysis performed here suggests that money does indeed influence votes.”8
So, there you have it. The literature that purportedly shows that contributions don’t matter actually shows that contributions significantly influence legislative voting (which, by the way, is the last step in the policymaking process, and, thus, is likely a conservative measure of the actual impact of contributions).
Where do we go from here?
I think first and foremost we should finally put to rest the notion that contributions don’t matter. It was a logical leap to begin with, and the literature simply doesn’t support it. As the above-referenced meta-analyses make clear, when the literature is put to analytical scrutiny, it reveals that contributions do, indeed, influence policy (and, thus, matter).
Once we put to rest the notion that contributions don’t matter, I think we should begin moving on to other important questions, such as how contributions influence policy and what are their broader impacts.
How do contributions influence policy? Some possible answers to this question have begun to emerge. First, contributions provide access to contributors,9 which, in turn, opens the door to lobbying, etc. The importance of lobbying as an extension of contributing probably can’t be overstated, as research suggests that social ties,10 as well as the “mobilization of bias,”11 are critical, both of which are likely linked (no pun intended) to contributions and lobbying. Once access is obtained and lobbying begins, lawmakers may ultimately feel compelled to “return the favor” of a contribution because of a social-psychological pull we’re all subject to—reciprocity.12 This could occur at virtually any stage of the legislative process, from agenda setting and the drafting of legislation to committee votes and, ultimately, final roll call votes.
What is the broader impact of contributions? Here, too, we have the beginnings of some answers. For business PACs, contributions provide tax benefits.13 They also aid in the passage of regulatory changes beneficial to these businesses.14 Additionally, business lobbyists frequently ask for “help in obtaining government contracts . . . and government subsidies for the lobbyist’s corporation.”15 In the grander scheme of things, contributions may well be related to the rise in income inequality we’ve seen in the U.S. over the past few decades. If so, as Lessig puts it, “This isn’t the rich getting richer because they’re . . . working harder; . . . it’s because their lobbyists are working harder.”16
In conclusion, the literature shows very clearly that contributions influence policy; contributions really do matter. We should consider this settled. What we should do now is focus our attention on other questions, such as how contributions influence policy as well as their broader impacts. Early answers suggest that contributions affect policy via social ties and lobbying, and result in tax benefits, regulatory favors, and possibly even government contracts and subsidies for contributors. This, in turn, may be hurting the majority of the populace, as it is likely increasing inequality. Future work should continue to examine these themes—with an eye toward reform.
Note: This post is related to an article by Clayton D. Peoples, "Campaign Finance and Policymaking: PACs, Campaign Contributions, and Interest Group Influence in Congress," Sociology Compass 7.11 (2013): 900-913.
1. E.g. Paul Burstein, “Is Congress Really for Sale?” Contexts: Understanding People in their Social Worlds 2.3 (2003): 19-25; Frank J. Sorauf, Inside Campaign Finance: Myths and Realities (Yale University Press, 1992).
2. E.g. David Brooks, “Don’t Follow the Money,” New York Times, October 18, 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/19/opinion/19brooks.html?_r=0; George Will, “Why is There So Little Money in U.S. Politics?” Jewish World Review, December 30, 2002, http://www.jewishworldreview.com/cols/will123002.asp.
6. Douglas D. Roscoe and Shannon Jenkins, “A Meta-Analysis of Campaign Contributions’ Impact on Roll Call Voting,” Social Science Quarterly 86.1 (2005): 52-68 and Thomas Stratmann, “Some Talk: Money in Politics. A (Partial) Review of the Literature,” Public Choice 124.1/2 (2005): 135-156.
14. Matthew C. Fellowes, and Patrick J. Wolf, “Funding Mechanisms and Policy Instruments: How Business Campaign Contributions Influence Congressional Votes,” Political Research Quarterly 57.2 (2004): 315-24.
15. R. Kenneth Godwin and Barry J. Seldon, “What Corporations Really Want from Government: The Public Provision of Private Goods,” in Allan J. Cigler and Burdett A. Loomis, eds., Interest Group Politics, 6th ed. (Congressional Quarterly Press, 2002), 205-224, 205.