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“Under the Influence” Index Shows Influence of Money on Politics

Oct. 9, 2006

“Under the Influence” Index Shows Influence of Money on Politics

Statement of Laura MacCleery, Congress Watch Director

We begin with these 10 states today and will publish the remaining states soon. When we produce the data for all 50 states, there will also be cumulative rankings for the entire Congress.

Clicking on any column heading in the chart re-orders the chart according to that factor.  Clicking on the name of a member of Congress brings up their photo, biography and individual statistics. The results are based on an analysis of data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics. We also thank the Center for Public Integrity for providing the travel data.

In order to achieve an apples-to-apples comparison, the data were adjusted in two ways: first by the number of years in office and second in order to compare senators who did not run in 2004 with those who did. The McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act (BCRA) doubled the contribution limits and therefore increased the amount of money given to candidates, against a backdrop in which overall money in the system is increasing with each election far faster than inflation would dictate.   In each category, the unvarnished totals are also provided in the chart.

The findings are distinct to each state and are available on our interactive Web site, as are individual state brochures designed for state-level clean elections activists.

Overall, the data show the influence of money in politics is pervasive. Candidates across the political spectrum are far too dependent on big money donors, lobbyists, out-of-state money and goodies like privately funded travel.   I will just highlight examples of the findings from just two of the states.

With regard to California, we point out that Rep. Bill Thomas   ran uncontested in the 2004 election, yet still raised more than $2.6 million, relying largely on political action committees (PACs). Among members of the California delegation, Thomas received the highest amount of contributions from PACs per cycle ($1.8 million), the second-highest percentage of contributions from out of state (71.2 percent) and the third-highest amount of contributions from lobbyists per cycle ($122,980). Thomas also received only 18.6 percent of such contributions from small donors (calculation excludes PACs), giving him the fifth-lowest such ratio among members of California’s congressional delegation.

In Ohio, Rep. Michael Oxley was the highest recipient of contributions from lobbyists in the Ohio congressional delegation, averaging $167,048 per two-year election cycle. House Majority Leader John Boehner was second on the list of K Street recipients, at $147,833 per cycle. Oxley also had the greatest reliance on out-of-state donors, at $649,302 per cycle, accounting for an astounding 81.9 percent of Oxley’s contributions from individuals. Boehner was second in this category, as well, with $458,239 in out-of-state payments per cycle.

Some defend the system by saying that the money does not buy legislative votes, that it instead only buys access. That fine distinction separating legal from illegal influence is sometimes honored in the breach. We have seen a year filled with allegations that the funding for junkets, parties and candidates does indeed buy votes, as in the case of Abramoff’s influence-peddling political machinery. 

But the typical excuse that money buys access should raise red flags in the minds of voters.   Why should those with money have more access to democratic decision-makers than we the people?

Our project will provide data to empower voters to ask hard questions of their lawmakers.   Before voters go to the polls, they should know who politicians see themselves as representing in Washington. We also hope to build a case for the fundamental reform to address the money-in-politics problem and to educate the public about the state-level successes of clean money systems that provide public funding for elections.

After a year in which members of Congress face prison terms, it is time to think about a systematic fix. A public funding system for congressional elections would eliminate the money chase for candidates and address the growing and sometimes all-too-justified public cynicism about the integrity of elected officials. Its time to value public integrity the way we would fund any other program that benefits all of us. Public funding of elections and meaningful lobbying reform puts democracy back into the hands of voters.

Polling data by independent pollsters Lake Research Partners and Bellwether Research show that a public funding system resonates strongly with voters:    Seventy-four percent of voters support a proposal for voluntary public funding of federal elections (57 percent strongly) with only 16 percent opposed.  Moreover, of those polled, a stunning 80 percent of Democrats, 78 percent of Independents, and 65 percent of Republicans support a clean elections system.