This American Life

Take The Money And Run For Office

This is an abridged version of a story airing this weekend on This American Life. The story is part of our series on money in politics.

We imagine lobbyists stalking the halls of Congress, trying to influence lawmakers with cash. But often, it's the other way around: Members of Congress stalk lobbyists, looking for contributions.

"Most Americans would be shocked — not surprised, shocked — if they knew how much time a U.S. Senator spends raising money," Sen. Dick Durbin told us.

There are special call centers across the street from the Capitol where Senators and Congressmen sit, often for hours a day, calling potential donors to ask for money.

And lawmakers and their staffs are constantly trying to find lobbyists to organize fundraisers. For the most part, these are much more mundane than the fancy black-tie galas you sometimes hear about on the news.

Take a look at this invitation for Rep. Tim Bishop, a democrat from New York. It's at a restaurant called Johnny's Half Shell. Cost: $500 to $2500. Time: 8:30 a.m.

Eight thirty a.m. is not glamorous. And lots of these fundraisers happen at breakfast.

Here's another invitation, this one for a a Republican candidate, Steve Daines of Montana. It's at the offices of the Associated General Contractors of America, a big trade group in town. Imagine 15 people eating appetizers in a conference room. Not glamorous.

A congressional watchdog group called the Sunlight Foundation collects these invitations to fundraisers and puts them online. We crunched some of their numbers. (Notes on the data are at the bottom of this story.) Here's a breakdown of fundraisers, by category:

Distribution of fundraising events

Sifting through the invitations, the same venues come up again and again. Lunch at The Capitol Grille, dinner at Bullfeathers, cocktails at the Monocle. Here are the top 10 locations for fundraisers between 2008 and early 2012. They form a ring around the capitol.

Not all of the events are boring. There are pheasant hunts, golf tournaments, sailing trips. This past week, for a thousand bucks, you could join South Dakota Senator John Thune at a Van Halen concert. Here's a count of fancy events from 2008 through early 2012:

Fundraising event highlights

And here's a graph of all fundraisers in that time:

Fundraisers over time

So how do lobbyists actually pay to attend these events?

Sometimes, they pay with plastic. There's often a space on the invitation to put your credit card number. Some lobbyists send their donation in ahead of time. Some want to hand over the money in person.

"We have a policy that all checks have to be hand delivered," says financial services lobbyist Scott Talbott. "Wouldn't you remember if someone handed you a check rather than sent it in the mail?"

What does the money buy? What are corporations and special interests getting in return for the billions of dollars they spend lobbying each year?

If you're cynical, you think money buys votes, and Washington is owned. Money drives everything.

Lobbyists and politicians usually tell you the opposite. The money has no effect. After all, they say, donations come from both sides. Exporters vs. importers. Bankers vs. Realtors. Businesses vs. unions. The money cancels itself out.

Rep. Barney Frank says both of those positions were caricatures.

"People say, 'Oh, it doesn't have any effect on me,'" he says. "Well if that were the case, we'd be the only human beings in the history of the world who on a regular basis took significant amounts of money from perfect strangers and made sure that it had no effect on our behavior."

On the other hand, Frank says, money isn't the only thing that influences lawmakers.

"If the voters have a position, the voters will kick money's rear end every time," he says.

But the fact is, a Congressman's district doesn't care about most legislation one way or another. Most of what Congress does affects the minutiae of tax law and business code and replacing the "and" in subsection b of title 1 with an "or."

The only people who do care, or who even understand what the small print means are the lobbyists, and the industries and interests they represent.

Fundraisers and campaign contributions don't buy votes, for the most part. But they buy access — they get contributors in the door to make their case in front of the lawmaker or his staff. And that can make all the difference.

"You may end up voting the wrong way because you haven't fully understood both sides of the story — even if you do have integrity," says Walt Minnick, a former Idaho Congressman who now works as a lobbyist.

Minnick says, for example, that he met with representatives from the payday loan industry, which contributed to his campaign. "Some of the folks in that industry were a little unsavory," he says.

"There weren't any people who were applying for payday loans that came in to see me," he says.

Money in the political system helps explain why oil companies get big subsidies even while their business is booming, why the federal government provides flood insurance for rich people to build beach houses in hurricane zones, why corn syrup that goes in soft drinks gets federal subsidies and fruits and vegetables don't.

If a congressman went in front of a town hall meeting and said "For $5000, I'll sit down with any one of you and have breakfast, and you can tell me exactly how you'd like me to vote" he'd be booed off the stage.

But in Washington, that's what happens every day.

*Note: For the graphics in this piece, we analyzed more than 13,000 event invitations. The data came from Political Party Time, a site run by the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation, and was compiled largely through submissions from sources in Washington.

Politicians are not required to file reports about their fundraising events. As a result, not all fundraisers are included in the Political Party Time data set.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.