More Money Buys More House Votes, Study Finds

(CN) – A new study by a Chicago-based think tank asks the question “How much money must you spend to buy a vote in the House of Representatives?” The answer: The more you’re willing to spend, the more votes you’ll buy.

The Roosevelt Institute’s study finds that every $100,000 spent by Wall Street lobbyists on Democratic members of the House of Representatives between 2013 and 2015 increased the chances by about 13 percent that that lawmaker would break rank from his party and support legislation to weaken the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill.

The study analyzed Democrats who had previously supported the Dodd-Frank legislation passed in the brutal aftermath of the 2008 economic meltdown, but switched their vote after intensive lobbying by the financial industry.

“Democratic representatives who voted in favor of finance often received $200,000 to $300,000 from that sector, which raised the odds of switching by 25 to 40 percent,” wrote the study’s authors Thomas Ferguson, Jie Chen and Paul Jorgensen.

Dodd-Frank was a bill aimed at reforming the financial sector after economists agreed that the financial deregulation craze of the 1980s through the beginning of this century had at least significantly contributed to the most severe global financial meltdown since the Great Depression.

In an effort at bipartisanship, the study also analyzed similar defections from party orthodoxy by Republican lawmakers, who at one time opposed net neutrality but then did about-face after contributions from tech giants like Google, Amazon and Facebook began trickling in.

“Every additional $1,000 dollars decreased the odds of voting against [net neutrality] by 24 percent,” the study says.

Ferguson, Chen and Jorgensen spend time taking down previous studies that concluded money’s influence in politics is overdramatized by press and critics of the U.S. style of democracy.

Part of the problem is that those studies dramatically misrepresented and underreported the different forms of political contributions made to politicians, according to the current study’s authors.

“Political money resembles the electromagnetic spectrum: The portions that you see represent but a fraction of the whole phenomenon,” the authors write.

For instance, the Federal Elections Commission tracks campaign contributions, which is how most people believe politicians are influenced.

But the study says other forms of influence fly under the radar, including giving foundation grants to family members or favored charities; offering book contracts, consulting advice or speaking fees – a practice that has come under greater scrutiny after Hillary Clinton collected enormous sums for a series of speeches at Goldman Sachs; tip-offs to initial public offerings of stocks; and other benefits of a close relationship with industry in general and the financial sector specifically.

For instance, JPMorgan Chase made a huge donation to the New York City Police Foundation, the charitable arm of the New York Police Department, during the Occupy Wall Street movement – a move that not only executed an end-around political donation regulations but also was seen as an attempt to influence the police into cracking down on the protests.

Another area where the Federal Election Commission and the Internal Revenue Service have no jurisdiction is the revolving door between the federal government and Wall Street.

“Before taking a top slot in [former President Barack] Obama’s White House, one aide collected almost $900,000 from Goldman Sachs for advice on ‘philanthropy,’” the authors wrote.

Wall Street firms are not shy about stacking presidential administrations with their employees as a means of ensuring their perspective is incorporated in policy creation.

“News stories also reveal that some top private-sector executives have clauses in their contracts awarding them substantial bonuses if they leave for ‘public service,’ such as the contract former Treasury Secretary Jack Lew had with Citigroup,” the study says.

When accounting for these alternative means of funneling money and influence to politicians, there is a direct correlation between financial contributions to lawmakers and how they cast their votes.

Nevertheless, many still doubt the overweening influence of money in our democratic process, pointing to the election of President Donald Trump as proof that campaign contributions are ultimately unsuccessful.

Nearly all of Trump’s Republican opponents outspent him during the primaries. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush raked in the most campaign money by a large margin, which ultimately proved futile.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton’s war chest was significantly larger than Trump’s during the general election, and she lost in the Electoral College.

But the study authors say presidential elections are poor indicators of the relationship between money and policy-making.

“Presidential elections are essentially one-offs and heavily influenced by outside media coverage, but if one looks at Senate and House elections, where there are many more cases, the pattern that emerges is precisely the reverse: In major party elections, the proportional division of campaign finances predicts the final vote between the major party candidates extremely well,” the study says.