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September 17, 2014

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The price of admission in politics

AUSTIN, Texas — Three years ago, I wrote about research showing that white lawmakers are more likely to respond to folks named Jake Mueller and minority lawmakers are more likely to respond to folks named DeShawn Jackson.

Now, the man who helped do that study while he was at Yale is back with another piece of research putting stats to one of your worst fears about politics in the 21st century U.S.

The question is this: Who has a better chance of getting meetings with U.S. House members or their top aides? Folks who identify themselves as “active political donors” or folks who call themselves “concerned constituents”?

Yes, you’re correct, but slow down, you’re getting ahead of me here.

David Broockman is working on his political science doctorate at University of California, Berkeley. He’s still young (by my metrics), but his political interest dates to when he was even younger. In 2003, then 14, Broockman was picked by fellow Howard Dean backers to file the forms that got Dean on the Texas Democratic presidential primary ballot.

OK, so that didn’t end so well for Dean. But Broockman has moved on to the political academia world, where he’s become adept at doing the rarest of the rare: academic research that produces results you and I can understand.

His recent efforts include work with Joshua Kalla, a Yale grad student, on a report called “Congressional Officials Grant Access Due to Campaign Contributions: A Randomized Field Experiment.”

I’m way above my grade level here (I completed 16th), but I believe randomized field experiments are the best kind.

“Concern that lawmakers grant preferential treatment to individuals because they have contributed to political campaigns has long occupied jurists, scholars and the public,” the report begins. “However, the effects of campaign contributions on legislators’ behavior have proven notoriously difficult to assess.”

Hence, the randomized field experiment involving seeking meetings with 191 U.S. House members.

As noted in the report, the question about money and politics has simmered anew in recent years as the U.S. Supreme Court threw out some campaign finance restrictions and broadened the ways in which corporations can make contributions.

The research by Kalla and Broockman was embedded in an effort by Credo Action, a 3.5 million-member liberal political organization, to gain support for a federal measure that would ban a certain chemical. Credo Action cooperated with the researchers by identifying its members who have been political donors.

All of the requests for meetings were identical, save for the differentiation between donors and constituents. And note, we’re not talking about donors to that particular House member. Just donors.

One version of the meeting request said: “Around a dozen of our members near (DISTRICT CITY) who are active political donors have expressed interest in meeting with the Congressman, in person or by phone from (CITY) office. These donors are extremely concerned by (DETAILS ON BILL) and would like to tell the Congressman why his base would like him to co-sponsor H.R. (BILL DETAILS).”

The other version was the same, except it substituted “concerned constituents” for “active political donors.”

It’s important to note no deception was involved. Everyone identified as a political donor has been a political donor. And the topic was a real one that

Credo Action was working on. The research was piggybacked on that effort.

“The requests did not ask legislators to engage in any illegal behavior and did not contain any explicit or implicit quid pro quo arrangements,” the study says.

What happened was exactly what you feared would happen. It’s right there in the “Outcome Measurement” section, which ranked outcomes from “most desirable,” which was a meeting with the House member, to “least desirable,” which was no meeting with anybody. In between, at varying levels of desirability, were meetings with varying level of congressional staffers.

Overall, Credo Action got meetings with 86 of the 191 congressional offices it contacted.

“Senior policymakers attended the meetings considerably more frequently when congressional offices were informed that the meeting attendees were donors,” the report concluded. “Only 2.4 percent of offices arranged meetings with a member of Congress or chief of staff when they believed the attendees were merely constituents, but 12.5 percent did so when the attendees were revealed to be donors.”

“When congressional offices were only informed that the attendees were their constituents, attendees very rarely gained access to officials at this level,” the study said, adding the obvious, “These results indicate that senior congressional officials are considerably more likely to meet with individuals because they have donated to campaigns.”

The researchers suggest an analogy to explain why lawmakers may favor donors, even those who haven’t given to them: “A thief can compel a victim to hand over their belongings by brandishing a handgun even without firing it. The knowledge that the thief can fire the gun is what induces the victim’s compliance.”

The study includes the caveat that no single experiment can “establish why senior officials more readily avail themselves to putative donors.” It could be, the researchers said, due to a perception that donors have “greater policy expertise than constituents.” Could be, maybe.

“Better understanding this question is ripe for future research,” the study said. “However, that legislators privilege requests from individuals because they have donated has the same social consequences regardless of why they do so.”

“The hypothesis that individuals can command greater attention from influential policymakers by contributing to campaigns has consequently been among the most contested explanations for how financial resources translate into political power,” the researchers conclude. “The simple but revealing experiment presented here elevates this hypothesis from extensively contested to significantly supported.”

I don’t know how they’d design it, but how about this for their next study: “They’re All a Bunch of Lying, Cheating Scoundrels: A Randomized Field Experiment.”

Ken Herman is a columnist for the Austin American-Statesman.

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