The hand-wringing over the Supreme Court's repeal of overall campaign contribution caps is a bit like worrying about how the Titanic will fare now that its night watchman has evacuated to a lifeboat. The wealthy and business interests already drive policy and command more attention from politicians. What possible difference could another few million dollars make?
"Economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy," a study published in Perspectives on Politics this week suggests, "while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence." The study, written by Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University, looked at 1,779 policy issues between 1981 and 2002, testing the extent to which different groups influenced passage of policy. "[T]he collective preferences of 'economic elites' (roughly proxied by citizens at the 90th percentile of the income distribution) were 15 times as important" as those of ordinary citizens, as Larry Bartels writes at The Washington Post.
It's probably easier to visualize. We took the graphs included with the study and simplified them. The red line shows the correlation between support for a policy by average citizens and its chance of passage. The black line does the same for those elites.
"The probability of policy change is nearly the same (around 0.3) whether a tiny minority or a large majority of average citizens favor a proposed policy change," the study's authors write. "By contrast … a proposed policy change with low support among economically elite Americans (one-out-of-five in favor) is adopted only about 18 percent of the time, while a proposed change with high support (four-out-of-five in favor) is adopted about 45 percent of the time."
This isn't a huge surprise. In January, The Wire noted that the policy priorities of the wealthy were more likely to be adopted into law. The real question is why this is the case; how the wealthy are able to wield that influence.
Our January article pointed to a March 2013 study (written, in part, by Bartels) which showed that the wealthy are far more likely to engage with elected officials. The graph at right shows the extent to which the wealthy interact with elected officials. More than a third had contacted their representatives. Forty percent had contacted their senators. They made themselves heard.
But how'd they get those meetings? Research The Wire wrote about last month can probably answer that question. In a controlled study, researchers from Yale and Berkeley found that the offices of elected officials were five times more likely to set up meetings with people who identified themselves as campaign donors, and donors were more likely to get to meet with higher-ranking staffers.
Campaign contributions are all about getting doors open. Open doors means that people can effectively advocate for their policy goals. Advocacy for policy goals increases the odds of passage. This is all correlative, we'll note, but it also makes complete sense.
When Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus calls for the complete elimination of campaign contribution limits, as he did on Tuesday, what he's asking for is really only an incremental change to the system as it exists. Could it get worse? Yes. Are the existing limits ensuring a level playing field for everyone involved in our democracy? No.