What money actually buys you in politics

It's a pretty common belief that all those campaign contributions basically buy the votes of members of Congress.  As I actually teach my Introduction to American Government students, this is not the case.  What is nice to see, is a column in the Washington Post (by Social Science columnist Shankar Vedantam) actually explaining how it really works.  Money doesn't buy votes, it buys priorities. 

The conventional take on these donations might be called the “Mr. Smith
Goes to Washington” version. This widely held view is that campaign
contributions basically buy politicians….

The conventional view, at least implicitly, is that these donations are
designed to sway candidates who win elections in the direction of
groups who gave them money…

…the vast majority of campaign contributions from
special interest groups go to politicians who already agree with the
groups making the donations — antiabortion groups, for example, give
nearly all their money to Republicans and abortion rights groups give
nearly all their money to Democrats. If such donations were meant to be
bribes, wouldn't these groups give money to candidates and politicians
who were on the fence or on the other side? Why do you need to bribe
people who agree with you?

Hall said that when special interest
groups make donations or lobby the president and legislators, the pitch
is never, “Here's some money to change your vote,” but rather, “Here is
an issue to work on that will appeal to your constituents.” Politicians
go along with the proposals precisely because such work does
help their constituents. The only problem, of course, is that by
focusing on some constituents, the politician no longer has time to
focus on issues that help other constituents. Politicians may feel they
are in the corner of both wealthy and poor constituents, but the money
that flows into politics tends to get them to prioritize the concerns
of the wealthy and the organized over those who are marginalized.

is a loser,” Hall said. “Whatever else the legislator would be doing
gets lost . . . I don't get to the 15th thing on my list, but I don't
know what the 15th thing is and I don't know if I would have gotten to
it anyway. There is a distortion of priorities, but there is no ethical

So, money definitely matters– a lot.  Its just not quite as corrupt as people like to think. 

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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