Most of us already inherently understand that money has corrupted our political system, but it’s always helpful (if not reassuring) to see tangible evidence to validate this belief. As The Washington Post reports, a new study shows that citizens are more likely to get face time with members of Congress and their staffs if they first identify themselves as “political donors.”
David Broockman and Joshua Kalla, graduate students from UC Berkeley and Yale respectively, were curious about how much money impacts whether a congressperson will listen to a citizen’s opinion on pending legislation. Accordingly, they enlisted the help of CREDO Action, a liberal political group, to conduct a randomized, controlled study.
The researchers composed two different emails from people seeking meetings with Representatives and their staffs: one that refers to the senders as “active political donors” and the other simply calls themselves “local constituents.” CREDO participants used one of the two messages when attempting to schedule meetings with Democratic members of Congress.
The results were significant: only 2.4 percent of the participants who called themselves “constituents” achieved a meeting with a Congressperson, whereas 12.5 percent of the self-identified “donors” were granted an appointment.
It wasn’t just members of Congress that factored a person’s money into making meetings; it also appears to have impacted whether the staff made time. When the congressperson wasn’t directly available, “donors” secured meetings with top staffers 20 percent of the time. Meanwhile, only 5.5 percent of the constituents were able to meet with top staffers.
The researchers say these findings are important in light of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling. The majority of Justices declared that legislators are not swayed by campaign donations (like those to Super PACs) that don’t go directly into their pockets, but this study suggests otherwise. Clearly, these members of Congress were more likely to appease donors and take their concerns seriously.
In that respect, Broockman believes that the study actually undervalues how much money could influence access to Congress. He expects that if donors were to reference the size and recipients of their contributions, they would receive even more preferential treatment.
Donald Green, a professor at Columbia University, hopes this work inspires similar research. “What is interesting is that it was done on the left, so it cannot be dismissed as a cheap shot at the right-of-center donors who are so often in the news.” Indeed, it would be a mistake to assume this problem applies only to Republicans – with campaign finance reform in shambles, politicians of all affiliations are prioritizing money.
As for similar research, there was a study from last year that compared the kind of access a private citizen could get to Senators as compared to a registered lobbyist. A federal lobbyist was able to set up meetings with 27 Senate offices, while the private citizen only achieved 7 such meetings, none of which were with an actual Senator his or herself.
Democracy is definitely in trouble when politicians – even the liberals – give preferential consideration to those with money. If politicians can’t make time for the average citizen, who is it they’re actually representing anyway?
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