On Monday, the New York Times reported that billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch plan on spending $889 million on the 2016 presidential election. In a push to further influence legislation, the Koch brothers have recruited some 300 other businessmen to their Freedom Partners group, creating, per the Times report, “the largest single concentration of political money outside the two established parties.”
This latest case of the Koch brothers is an extremity, of course, but it ties in to the national trend of unloading cash on political campaigns. So how does that kind of large-scale spending affect our politicians-to-be?
Rest assured (or maybe stay disturbed), money can determine a party’s agenda, keep legislation off the floor, and, perhaps most significantly, determine certain bills’ language.
Rest assured (or maybe stay disturbed), money can determine a party’s agenda, keep legislation off the floor, and, perhaps most significantly, determine certain bills’ language, according to a 2012 study by Lynda Powell, a political science professor at the University of Rochester. Analyzing legislators from all 50 states, Powell found that the real danger wasn’t so much who is getting elected, but rather how earmarked legislation might benefit special interest groups. Powell’s research dealt with state legislators, but her discovery that campaign money holds more value in states with well-paid legislators and professional leadership structures certainly raises an eyebrow; Washington, D.C., is, after all, the most professional leadership structure, with the highest paid legislators.
As if we needed more proof of the power of money in politics, another field experiment, released in 2014, found a link between campaign donations and post-election Congressional behavior. Joshua Kalla and David Broockman, both University of California-Berkeley graduate students, worked with the liberal CREDO Action activist group to analyze politicians’ responses to donors in comparison to regular old constituents. Basically, the research team sent 191 members of Congress one of two emails: The first email asked the Congressperson, or their most senior staffer, to meet with “local campaign donors” about co-sponsoring a bill; the second email asked the Congressperson, or the senior staffer, to meet with “local constituents.”
Just 2.4 percent of the requests to meet with local constituents were accepted, while 12.5 percent of the requests to meet with political donors were granted. Taken with that aforementioned 2012 study by Powell, this gives unfortunate empirical evidence to what many Americans might already suspect: Money affects all spheres of politics, from campaigning to legislation to simple meetings.
Maybe one day we'll just do away with money in campaigns altogether, but until then, people like the Koch brothers—and the ideologies they promote—aren’t going anywhere.