How can the little guy influence legislation through campaign donations?
February 14, 2007 5:23 PM   Subscribe

I was recently having a discussion with someone about whether an individual can influence the passage of legislation, by making campaign donations, in the same way that we know corporations do. It seems unlikely, to me, that individual donations would be as effective as corporate donations. But I have a few questions about this.

Here are the questions I have:

(1) Do you think it would be effective to call the legislator's office, saying, "You may recall my name from the $500 donation I recently made to your reelection campaign. I just wanted to let you know that I'm very interested in the passage of this legislation." (Or do legislators routinely ignore requests like this?)

(2) What kind of timing considerations are important? Does it matter when, in the process, the donation is made?

(3) Who should receive a donation? For example, if you anticipate a problem with the bill getting out of the calendar committee, does it make sense to give a donation to every member of the calendar committee, or is that just wasting money?

(4) Do you think individual donations in the amount of a few hundred dollars, to legislators you think could be instrumental in getting the bill passed, would actually make a meaningful difference in whether the legislation passes, or would it be equivalent to pissing in the ocean and expecting it to turn yellow?
posted by jayder to Law & Government (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I think they'd dismiss you as a crank.

Go ahead and express your opinion on various bills; your opinion will be combined together with the opinions of the hundreds of others who express their opinions. But trying to cite campaign contributions is a good way to make them completely contemptuous of you -- unless your contribution was in six figures.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 5:46 PM on February 14, 2007

One time donations don't mean much unless they are extra-ordinary sums and of course that isn't allowed in any of the races that have controlled the donation limits. I think the federal presidental limits are something like $2300/canidate/cycle.

What will curry favor is consistant spending and the ability to convince others to spend. When bigwigs give, you can be assured that they know other bigwigs that might consider donating to the process.

If you could organize a bunch of people and they would let you spend their money you'd essentially have yourself a lobbying-like firm just like the big boys. When it comes down to it, groups like AARP, the NRA and NOW act in this very function. They are made up of little people contributing to something who makes their voice heard in aggregate.
posted by mmascolino at 6:03 PM on February 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

What mmascolino said.

"Corporations" per se cannot give money to candidates for Federal Office. When you see that "corporation x supports Republicans and corporation y supports democrats" that means "employees of corporation x and employees of corporation y."

You can also extend employees to lobbyists, who also as individuals make contributions.

To become more prominent on the radar screen, max out your contributions to multiple candidates in the same party, or become an "influencer" who can bundle up money from friends to give to one candidate. This won't directly give you influence over any legislation, but it will increase the chances of being in the same room as the candidate and being able to voice our opinion.

Of course, there's always the old-fashioned route of developing expertise and going to talk to the staff member of a legislator who will be happy to listen to you because of your expertise. I know someone who is meeting with Jeff Bingaman's staff tomorrow to talk about his climate change bill. She has been active with the Sierra Club for a number of years in New Mexico, and the staffers are happy to get input from these people who have significant -- if non-professional -- expertise.

If none of that satisfies you and you just want to subvert democracy and write legislation, the thing to do is get the Republicans back in power, have them reinstitute the K-Street project, and then give 5 to 50 million dollars to a lobbying firm. They'll arrange to write the legislation and do their best to have it passed into law.
posted by alms at 6:21 PM on February 14, 2007

(1) Do you think it would be effective to call the legislator's office...

In this example, no. Realize that they receive tons of mail and calls, and only start looking for patterns, as they realize that every caller represents X number of people that have the same opinion but don't call. So it's only when you 1000s of callers, then you know you have an issue.

(4) Do you think individual donations ... would actually make a meaningful difference

This depends largely on the individual. If YOU gave the federally mandated maximum individual donation, it's not terribly meaningful. If, say, Bill Gates gives a donation ... think about what that means. It's Bill Gates, the richest man in the world. He has a tremendous sway in several important industries. He has numerous wealthy friends. And he just went on public record in support of your campaign.

Your phone call doesn't get returned. Gates' call does. But you both gave the same amount of money.
posted by frogan at 7:07 PM on February 14, 2007

Your question assumes a linear, 1:1 relationship between contributions and effects; that's not the way it works (when it works, and it often doesn't).

Also, it gives no example of what you're trying to achieve-- a simple, subtle change in the tax code, one that affects a broad range of people trivially? Or a 5mpg increase in auto mileage standards, requiring the reallocation of billions in capital of publicly-held corporations?

My answers to your questions:
1) Tacky and ineffective.
2) Timing matters only in the sense that need-- during a hard-fought campaign, during their FIRST campaign-- enhances memorability. But memorability may not be your friend.
3) Again, you assume linearity. The more you hand out, the more hands will BE out. And your bill may still not be scheduled.
4) Yes, pissing in the ocean.

Nothing is certain in in politics-- but there ARE odds you can play.
posted by jouster at 7:20 PM on February 14, 2007

I'll tell you what one of my pharmacy school professors told me. He is in Nebraska where it's probably more likely the individual can make a difference on the state level. When there's an election (eg, for state senate), he contributes a small amount to both campaigns. Then he makes contact with whoever won. After all, he did contribute to their campaign. He shows up at fundraisers. Eventually, people know who you are. By quietly and consistently doing this for about 30 yrs, he's gotten to the point where he knows people in office and they call him up and ask for his opinion on pharmacy-related issues. With healthcare being such big bucks, there is a surprising amount of pharmaceutical-related legislation.

He says that when you are a person with a specific niche, you can be seen by the politician as basically an extension of their staff. He had a great story about a state senator calling him up during voting and asking for his opinion on some medical piece of legislation - he had 2 minutes to give his pitch, and ended up successfully changing the senator's mind.

His opinion was that it doesn't matter if you contribute as little as $25 - just write a letter stating that you're a contributor, and tell them what you think.
posted by selfmedicating at 7:22 PM on February 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

The more you can aggregate others' donations, as was mentioned above, the more influence you can have. But I would imagine that if you do not have a relationship already with the legislator, then coming right out and linking your donation to your policy position could make them nervous and/or annoy them.

But also keep in mind that corporations wield influence because of their ability to use 527 groups, PACs and other entities to fund so-called independent expenditure campaigns, and corporations also employ lobbyists to schmooze legislative staff and the legislators themselves. It's tough to match that kind of machine. But if you can get a network of voters behind you and earn media coverage in the district, you could potentially win results that you could not afford to buy through campaign donations.

Of course, campaign funds should not influence policy at all.
posted by univac at 7:46 PM on February 14, 2007

How much would it cost you to convince you to do your job differently? Would a small (or big) check convince you to take actions at your job that would cause you to lose respect of you peers, lose effectiveness your at work, or cause you to lose your job? My point is that while it's easy to focus on the ugly financial side of lawmaking, don't lose sight of the fact that your legislators are people too. They all wish to continue to have the opportunity to do some good while holding on to their jobs. They will prefer predictable and continuous communications from their supporters and not lump sum my-way-or-the-highway offers.

Money doesn't buy results, money buys access. Results come from organization, a compelling message, and persistence. A contribution may help you to get your foot in the door and get some face time with a lawmaker; to make good on that time you need to be able to articulate a compelling reason to support your point of view. You have to present a powerful narrative to convince this person to take your side on this issue so that they can convince themselves, their staff, and their colleagues that they will be benefit from what benefits you. You need to have the persistence to make sure they follow through and the skill to know who to talk to and how to keep a legislator on track for you.

These things are easier for large corporations that staff communications departments filled with people who specialize in this form of story telling, but that does not exclude individuals or small groups from being effective. If you have an issue to advance, be prepared to convincingly pitch it in 30 second on the phone, in two minutes in a hallway or elevator, in 5 minutes at a fund-raising event, and in 30 minute meeting at the legislators office. In my experience, it's all a question of persistence, people skills, and a compelling reason and not cash payouts.
posted by peeedro at 8:07 PM on February 14, 2007

First, you're probably vastly overestimating the influence of corporations. As mmascolino noted, even the indirect contributions that corporations are allowed are capped at a fairly low level -- low enough that almost nobody in Congress is a big enough dipshit to risk pissing off his constituents for it. When you see a PIRG or similar organization telling you that Exxon gave $500,000 to some MC last year, this is what we call a "lie." What happened was that something like 2000 people who work for Exxon, or whose spouses work for Exxon, gave contributions of varying amounts to that candidate. Which is to say that most "corporate" contributions are really just individual.

The biggest reason we see lots of legislation get passed that favors corporations over consumers is not that corporations give jillions of dollars to MCs. The biggest reason is that they're voting on bills that voters don't give a shit about either way, but that some set of corporations care very deeply about. When voters make it plain that a vote on a bill is important, MCs are happy to vote in ways that crucify industries that they've been taking money from for years. Viz, telemarketers and do-not-call list legislation.

More to the point:

(1) They'll just think you're an asshole. They're used to and skilled at voting against the interests of people they just took money from. They'll say something nice to you and then vote whichever way they were going to vote anyway.
(2) No.
(3) Yes, you would want to target the relevant committees and subcommittees, especially if what you wanted was to get a bill killed. Or at least the interest group you should give your $500 would concentrate on talking to those people or their staffs.
(4) No. By the same token, the few grand that a corporation can directly throw around isn't important either.

If you want to influence legislation with your $500, find an interest group that's arguing your position and give it to them. They'll make better use of it than you will.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:19 PM on February 14, 2007

What money can buy you is access to the legislator. The $xxxx a plate fundraiser is often an opportunity for some individual time with the legislator in which you can talk about your particular issue. It's still not a linear $x-for-bill arrangement, as has been pointed out, but it can ensure that the legislator in question knows that one of their constituents/supporters is interested in the issue. You most likely would be meeting with staff, not the member, if you went to their office. The fundraiser can get you directly in contact with the legislator.

I agree with ROU that giving the money to an interest/advocacy group is probably more effective, assuming your interests are broad enough to have an interest group.
posted by gingerbeer at 9:33 PM on February 14, 2007

It's not directly in answer to your question, but you might find it informative to read this slate piece where someone attempts to lobby congresspeople for a pet issue.
posted by inkyz at 12:12 AM on February 15, 2007

As a former Congressional staffer, I can tell you that #1 is the surest way to cause a staffer to put as much distance between you and his boss as possible. As others have said, money might be able to buy you access to some extent, but it doesn't (and shouldn't) buy action. Don't think that there isn't a difference.

Money doesn't buy action in most Congressional offices, because most legislators (and the staffers who serve them) would rightfully be EXTREMELY uncomfortable with the appearance of direct quid pro quo. If you were to tell me "I donated $X to your boss, so you need to do Y and Z for me," I would put you on the bottom of the pile, in order to protect my boss from future allegations of bribery.*

If you're serious about this, you need to save your pennies and buy a plate at a fundraising event, as gingerbeer suggested. Then you'll get your 5 minutes of face time with the legislator to talk about whatever your Very Important Issue is. Just have your spiel (short and to the point) ready to go.

*Of course, there are some dirty politicians out there that don't care about this sort of thing, but they are the exception rather than the rule, and their going rates are a lot more than $500.
posted by somanyamys at 7:05 AM on February 15, 2007

Then you'll get your 5 minutes of face time with the legislator

Unless your representative is Speaker, Minority Leader, or chairman of the Appropriations or Rules committee , I doubt that you'd need to go to an expensive fundraiser in DC.

For a normal congressman, attend a few (free) campaign events that are convenient to you and odds are very, very high that there will be one that's small enough that you can get your question or request in personally, or one that's followed by enough schmoozing to have a good chance at getting your word in edgewise.

If you keep it friendly and polite, you might even get a non-bullshit answer. But if you start off with "I'M YOUR BOSS AND I DEMAND THAT YOU VOTE THIS WAY ON HR 1231 AND IF YOU DON'T I MIGHT VOTE AGAINST YOU YOU VACUOUS TOFFY-NOSED MALODOROUS PERVERT" you will, I assure you, be met with some vague platitude and immediately forgotten. This is sort of like greeting a woman you don't know by pawing at her clitoris.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:43 AM on February 15, 2007

$500 is, overall, peanuts, in terms of "influence."

You may, however, score a personal response if you send a clear, eloquent, hand-written letter to your rep. You can reference your status as a constituent and contributor.
posted by desuetude at 8:11 AM on February 15, 2007

You may recall my name from the $500 donation I recently made to your reelection campaign

This would be like walking into Manhattan's most exclusive restaurant without a reservation and slipping the maitre d' $5, saying "My friend Mr. Lincoln called ahead."
posted by Zed_Lopez at 8:40 AM on February 15, 2007

Thanks to everyone for these thoughtful answers. These answers confirm my general but inarticulate suspicion that there's little way an individual could make a real difference with contributions --- unless the individual is plugged into, and can influence, some network of other contributors.
posted by jayder at 2:14 PM on February 15, 2007

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