The Impact of Money on Policymaking

Money BagsIn 2013, Professor of Political Science Lynda Powell won the Fenno Prize for her book The Influence of Campaign Contributions in State Legislatures. It answered an important question in American politics: Do campaign contributions influence legislation? 

Earlier research failed to find much, if any, impact of donations on roll call votes. These votes, Powell argued, are mainly shaped by each member’s party, ideology, and constituency interests. Instead, donor influence is likely manifested earlier in the legislative process, primarily in committees that serve as legislative gatekeepers. She sought to identify the less observable influences of contributions on legislation—from killing bills quietly to writing them to favor donor interests. 

Analyzing the Data

In a national survey, Powell asked state legislators how much influence contributions had on the content and passage of legislation in their chamber. She used their answers to measure donor influence and found influence varied greatly among the 99 chambers—little influence in some and a great deal in others.

To understand this variation, Powell adapted investment models of contributions to predict how many features of legislatures, such as term limits, affect the time members devote to fundraising for themselves and for their caucuses.

The model posited that the more time members devote to fundraising the more they accommodate donors in their legislative actions. Thus, the factors that explain differences in fundraising time should also, according to the model, explain the variation in the chamber-level influence measure. 

The survey asked legislators how much time they devoted to each type of fundraising. Thus, the predictions for individual-level fundraising time and chamber-level influence could both be tested. The results for both were remarkably consistent, and thus supported the model assumption that donations buy influence and the validity of the influence measure.

The Bigger Picture

Powell also examined the larger context of money in politics by studying the linkage between lobbying and contributions. 

There are two views of lobbying. Some argue that lobbying works largely in tandem with donations: The opportunity to lobby is mainly contingent on contributions and advances donors' interests.

Others think legislators can be informed about policies by lobbyists without being significantly influenced. In this view, the legislators most dependent on lobbyists are those who gain the most value from the information lobbyists provide.

Fortunately, these two views lead to different expectations about which legislators should rely more on lobbyists. (Legislators were asked how much they relied on lobbyists for information.)

The empirical results were consistent with the “access”, but not the “informational” model. These findings thus identify a mechanism of influence for donations.

What’s Next?

Lynda Powell Lynda Powell, professor of political science.

Powell’s current project builds on this research. Her earlier work combined survey data with largely aggregated data, such as the total funds raised by each legislator. While another legislator survey is central to her current project, she plans to exploit the big data opportunities from newly available data sources—such as the individual contributions received by each legislator and their campaign opponent and the individual votes they cast on legislation.  

Powell will use these data to address a variety of topics including:

(1) Do campaign finance regulations matter? For example, do donors who make independent expenditures gain the same legislative influence as those who contribute to political campaigns? Or does their separation from a candidate's campaign, as the Supreme Court’s majority opinion in Citizens United argued, eliminate any “corrupting” influence?

(2) Do campaign contributions affect the representativeness of our legislatures or exacerbate their polarization and gridlock? Are those, for example, who raise more from independent expenditures, which are often argued to be ideologically motivated, less willing to engage in legislative bipartisanship, and thus more firmly polarized in their positions?