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Lynda Powell Wins Fenno Prize

July 17, 2013

Lynda Powell, professor of political science at the University of Rochester, has won the 2013Richard F. Fenno Jr. Prize for her book The Influence of Campaign Contributions in State Legislatures (University of Michigan Press, 2012). Given annually by the Legislative Studies Section of the American Political Science Association for the best book in legislative studies, the award will be presented during the association’s annual meeting in Chicago, beginning Aug. 29.

“What distinguishes Lynda’s book is that it has all the elements we value for the Fenno Prize,” says Lanny W. Martin, head of the selection committee and the Albert Thomas Associate Professor of Political Science at Rice University. “It deals with one of the most important, but largely unanswered, questions in contemporary legislative politics—the influence of campaign contributions on policymaking—and her findings have implications for how we can alter institutions to decrease that influence.”

Martin adds that Powell’s use of a survey of approximately 3,000 legislators in 99 state legislative chambers provides “a novel measure of influence” that will “make it much easier for legislative scholars to examine the impact of money on the policymaking process.”

Established in 1986, the prize is named for Richard Fenno, a leading scholar of American politics and, coincidentally, one of Powell’s longtime colleagues at Rochester. Powell’s book is the 27th to win the prize and she is the first faculty member from the University to be selected for the award.

The prize honors work that is “both theoretically and empirically strong” and that finds new ways to find answers to “previously unexplored questions about the nature of poltics.” For Powell that question was: Do campaign contributions influence the content and passage of legislation?

In her study, Powell employs a national survey of state legislators along with data on campaign contributions, election laws, and other characteristics of our state legislatures to document the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which money buys influence—from setting a party’s agenda, to keeping bills off the floor, to adding earmarks and crafting key language in legislation.

“Other scholars have examined the relationship between campaign contributions and the floor votes an individual legislator casts, but this is the wrong way to approach the question,” says Powell. “On floor votes, most legislators vote with their party and constituency. Any influence of donations is likely to be limited to a small set of close votes that are not important to the legislator or to his or her party or constituents.”

Through formal models and statistical analysis, Powell teases out the personal, institutional, and political factors that make moneyed interests increasingly powerful in some states, but not others. For example, her data shows that political money carries more weight in states with larger chambers and more highly compensated legislators. Money also is more important in states where the majority party’s advantage is tightly contested and in which legislators are more likely to hold hopes of running for higher office. By contrast, donors to campaign coffers wield less power in states with term limits and more highly educated voters.

These conditions, writes Powell, predict how much time legislators devote to fundraising for themselves and for their party. She shows that the more time members spend on either type of fundraising, the greater the influence of contributions in the legislative process. Further, the same factors that explain the time legislators devote to fundraising also predict the variation in influence among state legislative chambers.

“I am not arguing that there is much quid-pro-quo influence,” says Powell. “But even the best intentioned legislator receiving money from an interest group is likely to at least listen to what donors have to say. And if you are hearing much more from people who donate money to you, it is hard not to be swayed by the greater body of argument and evidence from donors.”

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