Money in politics: What do donations buy?

Capital News Service

RICHMOND – An unethical, quid pro quo relationship between legislators and their donors is hard to prove and, experts say, unlikely for the vast majority of lawmakers. But some say the money flowing into the war chests of politicians affects their psyche, not their floor votes.

Every year in Virginia, hundreds of millions of dollars are donated to politicians running for local, state or federal offices. Everyone agrees that candidates need money to get their name out and win the election, but opinions differ on the lasting effect a check in the pocket of a politician can have.

“If you’re not successful with fundraising, it’s a fact that you’re likely not to be successful with your campaign,” said Del. Ed Scott, R-Madison.

Virginia does not put any limit on the amount of money an individual or business can donate to a politician. The system relies on disclosure of campaign donations and gifts to prevent unethical relationships from forming.

Money provides access

Lynda W. Powell, author of “The Influence of Campaign Contributions in State Legislatures,” said most politicians “might not be aware of influence.”

“Even the best intentioned legislator might be unknowingly influenced by listening to one side of the case more than the other,” Powell, a political science professor at the University of Rochester, said in an interview.

This is because donors often enjoy greater access to policymakers, she said.

David E. Broockman and Joshua L. Kalla, doctoral students in political science at the University of California at Berkeley, ran an experiment last year proving that donors do indeed have more access to the corridors of power.

The two researchers called politicians on the federal level to set up meetings, and they randomized whether to mention that they were campaign contributors. Broockman and Kalla found that they were more likely to get meetings if they indicated they were donors in their initial phone call.

Powell said it’s unclear whether this access directly leads to influence in the legislative process. A good example is floor votes: You can’t draw firm conclusions by looking at a public official’s voting record and comparing it with his or her list of donors.

“By just looking at floor votes, it’s impossible to know if (a legislator) would have voted that way without the donations,” Powell said.

Which is why Powell’s research focuses on campaign fundraising – how much time a legislator spends doing it and what effect it has. Her conclusion: “Donors have considerable influence in some chambers and little in others,” she wrote in the Duke University journal of Constitutional Law and Public Policy.

Case study: Dominion Virginia Power

If any business in Virginia wields influence in the General Assembly, it would be Dominion Virginia Power, which has donated more than $13 million to state politics since 1996 and over $800,000 this year alone.

Former Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder said in an interview that Dominion officials used their political clout this past legislative session to win passage of several bills they supported. One frees the utility from certain oversight by the State Corporation Commission for five years.

“They shouldn’t have that degree of influence,” Wilder said.

Lobbyists from Dominion would not talk with Capital News Service for this story. A spokesperson would speak only on background, telling CNS that Dominion’s donations have no influence; the spokesperson declined to discuss how Dominion decides which politicians to support or why it donates money.

Retiring state Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan, said he has gotten money from Dominion in the past – $68,160 to be exact. But he said it hasn’t made him biased toward the company.

“I’ve been a thorn in their side, just as much as I’ve been a help,” Watkins said.

Donations as free speech

Wilder said the power money has in government “is ruinous.” But the U.S. Supreme Court, in its 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, says donors have a First Amendment right to make political contributions.

Politicians receiving those donations say they pay equal attention to those who don’t give a dime.

“I think anyone who’s been around the process any period of time knows you have to listen to everybody,” Del. Scott said. “Fundraising is important, but at the end of the day, you get elected by the votes that you receive.”

Still, the Citizens United ruling has ignited a debate over whether donors have a right to make unlimited contributions to a candidate. Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, notes that “the First Amendment is not absolute.”

“We decided that yelling ‘fire’ in a movie theater is not OK,” Kidd said. “So we made it illegal.”

Some seek greater ethics reforms

So where was the “fire” in Virginia’s citizen legislature this year?

One focus of the legislative session was the passage of an omnibus ethics reform package following the conviction and sentencing of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell for public corruption. The new law says, among other things, that public officials can’t take gifts worth more than $100.

But some legislators say the reforms don’t go far enough to address problems in the campaign finance system and curb gratuitous corporate and lobby influence.

“The big loophole for all of this is that you don’t call it a gift. Just take a donation to your campaign committee, and then you can spend that money however you want,” said Del. Marcus Simon, D-Falls Church.

Simon sponsored three bills this year to reform campaign finance regulations. All of them died in the House Privileges and Elections Committee.

House Bill 1690, for instance, would have added language to Virginia’s Campaign Finance Disclosure Act to make it a Class 1 Misdemeanor to convert money donated to campaign committees into personal or family use.

“The current model is a disclosure thing, but I can spend it on whatever I want,” Simon said.

The existing system, he said, is predicated on a certain theory: “If my constituents go online and figure out that I’m spending all my campaign funds on dry-cleaning bills or on my cellphone bill for me and my family or things like that, they’ll vote for somebody else.”

In practice, however, that theory has flaws. “The problem is that the information is often hard to find – it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack,” Simon said.

Websites like the Virginia Public Access Project’s VPAP.org have compiled financial disclosure forms into a clickable, searchable public database – but to the untrained eye, much of the information is still hard to find or decipher.

The system relies on transparency and honesty from candidates to disclose what the money is used for, and ambiguous descriptors such as “fundraising event” are all too common.

“It’s a hard problem to tackle because we’re all candidates,” Simon said. “In addition to being delegates and senators, we’re all candidates as well, and so it’s a ‘glass houses’ problem – no one wants to throw stones.

“Like, ‘I don’t want anyone to look too closely at my campaign report, either.’ So nobody really wants to champion the issue, and that’s what makes it tough. And nobody wants to be ‘that guy.’ I mean, it’s not been easy on me to be that guy who has proposed that we stop raiding our campaign funds,” Simon said.

“It doesn’t win you friends.”

Legislators’ multiple roles

Serving in the General Assembly is supposed to be a part-time job: Delegates make $17,640 a year, and senators $18,000. Most lawmakers hold other jobs while they juggle legislative duties, including dealing with lobbyists and corporate interests. In addition, they’re perennial candidates: They must constantly be fundraising for the next election – something that doesn’t come cheap.

Legislators aren’t allowed to fundraise when the General Assembly is in session (for 60 days in even-numbered years and 46 days in odd-numbered years, always starting the second Wednesday of January).

Lawmakers often spend the rest of the year getting face-time with constituents and courting essential big-money donors to raise the campaign funds needed to win an election.

Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, who co-sponsored HB 1690 with Simon, sees a “very positive” correlation between large donations that corporations make and legislation that gets passed.

“You can come to a very solid conclusion that those that are very supportive of a campaign are receiving a disproportionate amount of influence here in the legislature,” Rasoul said.

The Citizens United decision established the right of corporations, labor unions and other groups to make donations to political action committees.

“While I disagree with Citizens United, I certainly understand the premise that a person’s contribution can be part of their speech,” Rasoul said. “But when somebody is donating $5 to a campaign and another entity may be donating $2 million to $3 million in a campaign cycle, those dollars are going to be dwarfing and muting the smaller donors.”

Rasoul proposed a few solutions, including financing certain campaigns from a public fund. For example, a candidate might gain access to such a fund by receiving a minimum number of smaller donations – a “solid endorsement of your campaign, more than just a signature.”

On the other side of the aisle, Watkins said he doesn’t “trust government controlling who campaigns and when.” He also added that people would find a way around it.

Rasoul said public financing would be a long-term solution.

“In the short term, what we need to be doing is just coming up with basic limitations to ensure that, you know, when someone does give a $50 contribution, it has meaning and substance,” Rasoul said.

Simon said the reform process in the General Assembly must be incremental, by tackling pieces of it each year.

“One of things I’m learning here is that you can come in with big ideas and big ambition,” he said. “But a lot of times, these things require some patience. You just got to do it a little bit at a time.”

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