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Campaign finance reform advocates protest outside the Capitol building in Washington D.C., 2011. (Photo: takomabibelot/cc/flickr)

Campaign finance reform advocates protest outside the Capitol building in Washington D.C., 2011. (Photo: takomabibelot/cc/flickr)

How Much to Buy a Congressional Vote? New Research Seeks Answer

Looking at Democrats who stopped supporting banking rules, authors conclude: 'Substantial numbers of legislators sell out the public interest in exchange for political money'

Lauren McCauley

While it is conventional wisdom that money influences politics, researchers released a report Tuesday aiming to answer the longstanding question of exactly how much political spending it takes to sway a Congressional vote.

Fifty Shades of Green (pdf), published by the Roosevelt Institute, analyzes "the role political finance has played in securing the privileged positions of both high finance and big telecom" by examining how lawmakers evolved in supporting efforts to weaken the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill and net neutrality.

Specifically, the authors looked at Democratic representatives who originally voted in favor of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act and then later voted to dismantle key provisions of it.

"Because these are the same representatives, belonging to the same political party, in substantially the same districts, many factors normally advanced to explain vote shifts are ruled out from the start," explained the research team, which was led by Thomas Ferguson, professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts in Boston and senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. Ferguson authored the book Golden Rule, on the role big money plays in political outcomes.

After analyzing five votes cast between 2013 and 2015 and comparing that to campaign contributions—which were tallied from any source including "contributions to candidate campaign committees, party committees, 527s or 'independent expenditures,' SuperPACs, etc."—the authors found "the link between campaign contributions from the financial sector and switching to a pro-bank vote to be direct and substantial."

"The results indicate that for every $100,000 that Democratic representatives received from finance, the odds they would break with their party's majority support for the Dodd-Frank legislation increased by 13.9 percent," the report states. "Democratic representatives who voted in favor of finance often received $200,000 – $300,000 from that sector, which raised the odds of switching by 25–40 percent."

The authors further noted that Democrats who were nearing the end of their House term as well as members of the House Financial Services Committee "were far more likely to support the banks on repealing elements of Dodd-Frank."

"It is sort of grimly humorous or might make you want to throw up, depending on how you look at it," Ferguson told the International Business Times. "Many of them are leaving because they want to cash out. In a few cases they were running for Senate and needed to raise a ton of money."

Notably, the report comes the same day that the committee is voting on the so-called Financial Choice Act 2.0, which would repeal and replace Dodd-Frank and "roll bank and consumer regulations back to the situation that led to the 2008 financial crisis," according to the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

As for how much spending by various interests could influence whether an elected official supports the open internet, the researchers used the 2006 Markey Amendment, known as the Communications Opportunity, Promotion, and Enhancement (COPE) Act, as a touchstone.

The authors note that party affiliation did play an "important role" with Democrats much more likely than Republicans to vote against the interests of cable and phone companies. However, "money made a substantial difference on both sides." The report continues:

Recipients of money from firms in favor of network neutrality, such as Netflix or Google, whose access to users could be affected, were considerably more likely to vote in favor of Markey's amendment: Every additional $1,000 dollars decreased the odds of voting against by 24 percent. Similarly, contributions from firms opposed to network neutrality were also telling: every $1,000 increased the chances of a vote against by 2.6 percent. The more conservative a representative was, the more likely he or she was to vote against network neutrality. Telecom employment in the district did not seem to matter, but district median income did: Every $1,000 in additional income decreased the odds of a vote against network neutrality by 7.2 percent

In the report's conclusion, the authors write that they don't "want to overstate" the results, however, they add that "the long history of skepticism toward claims that money powerfully influences legislative voting should come to an end."

Without mincing words, they add that the documented pattern of lawmakers "is too obvious to need much emphasis: Substantial numbers of legislators sell out the public interest in exchange for political money. This may not be the best Congress money can buy—the coefficients in our equations could be even larger, after all—but the reality is bad enough."

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