WASHINGTON, D.C.– Public concern about the influence of money in politics has never been greater. But figuring out exactly how much money is needed to “buy” a congressional vote has been difficult to do.
However, a new study released by the Roosevelt Institute, titled Fifty Shades of Green, has done just that by analyzing “the role political finance has played in securing the privileged positions of high finance and big telecom.”
The researchers – led by Thomas Ferguson of the University of Massachusetts Boston – specifically focused on one group of lawmakers that they felt best demonstrated the impact of money on public officials: Democratic congressmen who voted against, or changed their minds about, the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act – more commonly known as “Dodd-Frank.”
“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,” the researchers explained in the study’s executive summary.
By analyzing five different votes on parts of the bill that took place from 2013 to 2015, 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 [to] $300,000 from that sector, which raised the odds of switching by 25 [to] 40 percent.”
The study’s authors also noted that Democratic representatives who were approaching the end of their term or were members of the House Financial Services Committee were significantly more likely to adopt the finance industry’s position on Dodd-Frank, including voting to repeal key elements of the legislation. For instance, they found that the chances of a Democrat breaking with the party’s position shot up by 90 percent if the representative served on the House Financial Services Committee.
“You could see the way Dodd-Frank and the battle to repeal it became like the 30 Years War. It was the banking community vs. the legislature. It was a crusade,” Ferguson told the International Business Times.
In terms of examining how money from the telecom industry influenced lawmakers, the researchers chose to focus on the issue of net neutrality, specifically the passage of the Communications Opportunity, Promotion, and Enhancement (COPE) Act. While Democrats were much more likely than Republicans to vote against the interests of cable and phone companies, the study found that “money made a substantial difference on both sides.”
Ferguson, in a recent interview with the IB Times, was critical of previous academic research that has asserted that the influence of money in politics is negligible. He cited the use of outdated and poorly-executed analytical methods, as well as an allegiance to a status quo that funds research grants and keeps academics employed.
“It is certainly the case that the academic work on money and politics is mostly pretty bad. It’s often, frankly, embarrassing. When I was in grad school they just kept telling me it didn’t matter at all. You’re living in a money-driven political system, and the average political scientist is like a fish who doesn’t realize they live in water,” Ferguson said.
The study came a day after a recent poll from the pro-Clinton Super PAC Priorities USA found that Democrats are perceived as woefully out of touch with the economy. The poll found that 42 percent of Obama-Trump voters, or people who voted for Obama previously before switching sides and voting for Trump, said congressional Democrats’ economic policies will favor the wealthy. In contrast, just 21 percent of those voters said the same about Trump.
Another recent poll from the Washington Post found that two-thirds of Americans think the Democratic Party is out of touch with the concerns of the public, particularly on economic issues. These findings, also published by the Roosevelt Institute, serve to highlight the Democratic Party’s addiction to finance industry money, as well as wealthy donors.
As the authors of Fifty Shades of Green concluded: “there is no point in pretending that what appears to be the voice of the people is really often the sound of money talking.”