April 16, 2005

Money in Politics, Or
The Mystery of Melissa Bean

As most everyone who reads this blog knows, that hideous new bankruptcy bill passed through the House and will soon become law. Reading Elizabeth Warren's thoughts on the matter, however, I realized that I really, really don't understand how money works in Congress. Warren says "the financial services industry was giving big money" so that's why the bill passed. But what does that mean, really?

For instance, take Melissa Bean (D-IL, right), the first person on Steve Soto's "wall of shame". Bean voted for the bankruptcy bill. Was it because she was in the lending industry's back-pocket? Well, let's see: in 2004 she managed to oust incumbent Phil Crane, in part by raising a bit more money than he did; in fact, it was one of the most expensive House races in Illinois that year. But only a scant 5.1 percent of her PAC cash came from business, and most came from labor or single-issue PACs. If you break her fundraising down by industry, banks are very, very low on the list—far below labor unions and lawyers, both of whom might be expected to oppose the bankruptcy bill, no? Also curiously, it seems that the financial service poured far more money into trying to defeat her than elect her.

So why did Bean reward the financial industry by voting for the bankruptcy bill? Adding on to that, why did she vote for estate tax repeal? Campaign contributions seem to under-explain things here. One alternate possibility: Looking at Bean's profile here, it seems our little freshmen Representative got herself assigned to the Financial Services and Small Business Committee earlier this year. It's possible that the price of a plum committee assignment was a vote for both the bankruptcy bill (which financial services favor) and estate tax repeal (which small businesses favor). But that theory seems quite dubious, and depends on who's handing out committee slots.

I'm not going to do this sort of thing for every representative, but intuitively it seems that when we're talking about "money in politics," it's a mistake to focus on campaign contributions per se. Usually, the amount contributed by X industry to Y candidate ends up being surprisingly tiny, a relatively small percentage of total funds raised. Certainly not enough to induce that candidate to vote for an objectively bad bill that just happens to favor X industry.

No, I imagine the real "money in politics" problems lie elsewhere. For instance, looking over Melissa Bean's biography, she was a businesswoman and consultant for 20 years. Presumably she became fairly wealthy in that time. Presumably she knew a lot of wealthy people, or had a lot of wealthy clients, or hung around the sort of people who complained about, for instance, the estate tax. And after awhile, the estate tax starts to sound unfair! Perhaps she also didn't know too many people affected by bankruptcy. Hence her personal sympathies may well have been with the arguments of estate tax repealers and bankruptcy bill proponents. The problem here, then, is that the sort of people getting elected to Congress and the Senate are disproportionately people with a goodly horde of pre-existing wealth. That certainly affects the way they think about issues and the way they vote.

Then, of course, there's the lobbying, and the industry and think-tank reports that convince Congress to vote this or that way. That all costs money, money, money. Obviously the forces of good usually tend to be underfunded here, so the big business interests can usually get their way. (For instance, as I've noted before, labor unions do shockingly little in the way of lobbying.) The other upshot here is that campaign finance reform, ala McCain-Feingold, may do very little to get this sort of grubby money out of politics. But I'll have more on that later.
-- Brad Plumer 4:47 PM || ||