Campbell Conversations

Interview: Eleanor Powell

Eleanor Powell is a political science professor at Yale

Central New York has just experienced (or has it endured?) another extremely expensive congressional election. Eleanor Powell is a political science professor at Yale University who’s an expert on the role of money in politics, and in particular in Congress.

Grant Reeher (GR): Could you give me a brief overview of the amounts of money being raised and spent on congressional elections in recent decades?

Eleanor Powell (EP): This is something that’s really changed a lot over time. In recent years we’ve seen numbers in the billions. We’ve been talking about $4  (billion), $5 (billion) or $6 billion in recent election cycles. Going back even 10 years, the numbers were half that. And going back even further, they drop substantially. The FEC only started tracking these numbers around 1980, so it’s tough to say exactly how much was happening before that.

GR: Are there important differences in that trend for the money that’s raised and spent by the candidate and the campaign — the inside money — versus the outside, third-party or independent spending?

EP: We have seen a big increase in the independent spending, particularly in recent years. That didn’t really happen very much early on in the period that we can talk about. The numbers I gave you are focusing more on the direct spending and fundraising by congressional candidates. When you start to add in these other groups, the numbers get even higher.

GR: Is the outside money more corporate? My understanding is that corporations have always spent more.

EP: Yes, corporations have always spent more, and this unlimited corporate spending is something pretty new. Corporations can contribute directly to these so-called Super PACs, whereas corporations can’t contribute directly to either congressional candidates or to PACs that can contribute to candidates. That Super PAC money is all outside money. They can’t give the Super PAC money to candidates directly, but they can spend on ads that help candidates and support them on their behalf.

GR: A lot of people look at this and think that  congressional votes and decisions are being bought and sold. Is it that simple?

EP: No, it’s not that simple. That sort of really extreme outright quid-pro-quo exchange of contributions is relatively rare. That’s not to say it doesn’t have many more subtle types of influence, but that level we see rarely in American politics.

GR: Is it fair to say that the access to the member of Congress and the time that one gets to spend talking can be bought and sold?

EP: Yes. Members are allowed to outright sell their time and say, in order to schedule a meeting, you have to contribute X amount of money. And that money then gives you an opportunity to persuade the member. And so you may not be successful, (but) you have the opportunity to plead your case, which is a really powerful opportunity. And you get face time. You get the opportunity to forge that personal bond.

GR: I’ve had elected officials sitting where you are sitting right now. If one of them were to say to me, “The money that I raise and the contributions that are made to me or spent against me have absolutely no bearing on what I do as a political representative. It’s only relevant to the election cycle,” can we reliably say that that person is lying to me?

EP: Lying is a strong term. But it’s a pretty tough case to say that they are not somehow being influenced by the one-sided story they are hearing. Maybe they genuinely believe it, but the net impact of no influence seems like a pretty tough case to believe.

GR: How does money then affect what members of Congress do? Break it out for me.

EP: It affects things in a bunch of different ways. Members who are good fundraisers can then translate that to influence within the chamber. They can contribute to other members of Congress, and they can parlay this influence into getting into positions of leadership, and to even passing legislative priorities. The idea is, I helped you raise a lot of money and then you owe me a favor. You might be more likely to help me out when I come to you saying here is my bill, here is my pet project, I’m really working hard, here are all the reasons I want to pass it. And you’re going to give me a more favorable hearing. You’re more likely to vote in line for the things that I say. So again, it’s not necessarily this outright vote buying most of the time, but all these more subtle influences that exert bias into the policy-making process.

GR: You’ve done some research on what’s motivating the business organizations who donate and spend in campaigns. Tell me about that.

EP: Not every donor is motivated by the same thing. But one of the things I’ve found in my research is that a lot of corporate donors are very short-term access oriented. They are looking to contribute to people who have influence over the policies that that industry or that corporation cares about. As soon as the member loses influence over that area, the corporation stops giving to them immediately. And it’s pretty stark. So you can imagine if you look at members who are on the big tax-writing committee, Ways and Means, there are just huge financial ramifications across the economy. If a member loses his or her seat on Ways and Means, they immediately lose about $300,000 in contributions from corporate PACs. Not every donor is motivated by this, but at least some donors are motivated by these short-term access seeking (goals). Not only do they stop giving to the member when they lose their influence over this policy area, they start giving to the political opponent who gets their seat from the other party.

GR: So there’s no loyalty?

EP: It doesn’t look like there’s ideological loyalty, or partisan loyalty. There are some donors that are partisan or ideological, and it’s not to say that there aren’t corporations that behave that way. But there are certainly other sizable numbers of corporations that are behaving as pure short-term access seeking influence, and not looking over the longer time horizons, and not looking to play a more ideological strategy.

GR: What about individual donors? What’s motivating an individual that dips into their pocket and sends someone a check?

EP: It depends on whether we are talking about small donors or large donors. Donors that are donating small amounts, in particular over the Internet, there is no personal relationship between the member and the donor. I don’t think they are trying to get anything selfish out of that contribution. Whether they are ideological or partisan, it is probably something in that realm. Large scale, big donors, these big Super-Pac donors, who are giving millions and millions of dollars, there is clearly a personal relationship that the donor is trying to cultivate with the member, and it’s a little more difficult to tease out what the motivations are. It’s probably somewhat ideological; it could be access.

GR: Let’s assume that you don’t have the limitations of Supreme Court decisions, and let’s also suppose that money were no object. What system would you put in place to replace what we’ve got?

EP: In the never-going-to-happen world, I think the system I would probably endorse is one of a purely public financing system — the only way to fully eliminate all these types of influence. The problem is, in practice, we are very far removed from that ever happening.

GR: What changes would you realistically like to make?

EP: Here we are really hamstrung by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has strongly indicated that they think of money as speech and are opposed to any sort of limitations. If anything, the direction of movement on the Supreme Court in recent years has been to loosen restrictions. That means we are left with some small-scale changes. We can do things that improve the type of disclosure that we have, improve the measurement, so influence might be happening but at least we can try to discuss and talk about it and measure it, and newspapers can cover what’s happening.

Congress could do things to improve disclosure and transparency. For example, the Senate still doesn’t use electronic filing for its fundraising reports. It’s this amazing system where the Senate campaigns all have it on Excel spreadsheets, but then they don’t send the Excel spreadsheet to the FEC. They will print it out, and then those print-outs get sent over to a Senate office, and then it gets sent to the FEC. Then they have to digitize it. All of this takes weeks and weeks, and by then the election is over, and you can’t even talk about what contributions happened or mattered. So one thing the Senate could pass, is electronic disclosure. The House has been doing this for years. What the Senate is doing (is) for pure obfuscation and delay.

Another thing that they could do is just fund the FEC and staff it. The Federal Election Commission — the commission that does this monitoring — they haven’t actually increased the size of the FEC for several decades. While the scope and scale of money has increased substantially, the burden on what they are expected to do has increased substantially. So just give the organization a better ability to do its job in monitoring. These are things at the margin. They wouldn’t necessarily change how much influence is happening, but we would at least be able to talk about what that influence might be.

Every week Grant Reeher, Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute at Syracuse University, leads a conversation with a notable guest. Guests include people from central New York – writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals whose work affects the public life of the community – as well as nationally-prominent figures visiting the region to talk about their work.

Grant Reeher hosts WRVO Public Media’s program “The Campbell Conversations” at 6 p.m. Sundays at 89.9 and 90.3.


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