With campaign season in full swing, the media and political analysts of all stripes have been paying a lot of attention to interest groups and their influence on the upcoming elections. The media tells countless stories about interest groups and super PACS and all the money they have raised and spent on the election in the hope of influencing electoral outcomes and policymaking. There have also been reports of trade associations spending vast sums of money this election season. Despite the plethora of anecdotal evidence about one interest group or another, we hear relatively little empirical evidence related to how successful these groups are at pushing their agendas.
In a 2007 JPP article, University of Virginia political scientist Christine Mahoney found that interest groups are more successful at getting what they want in the US than in the EU where politicians are much less dependent on getting money from political donors to finance re-election campaigns. Mahoney recently told me, “One of the big differences we see between the US and the EU is the power of corporate lobbyists. In the US they get more of what they want, more of the time.”
However, in the five years since Mahoney’s article was published, the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case has changed the rules of the game. The Supreme Court’s decision in the case held that the government could not limit independent political expenditures by corporations and unions. Mahoney predicts that in the wake of this ruling, with corporations and trade associations now free to spend unlimited sums on political messaging, we are bound to see corporate lobbyists getting even more of what they want, even more of the time. As Mahoney wrote, “The design of the political system has implications for the responsiveness of politicians; this in turn fundamentally affects who succeeds and who does not. Specifically, the coupling of direct elections and private funding of elections in the U.S. leads to a system with incentives for elected officials to be more responsive to wealthier actors.” (55).
I recently spoke with Mahoney and asked her how the interest group environment has changed in the last five years. Mahoney mentioned that trade associations and corporations are certainly more successful than citizen groups in terms of influencing the outcomes of elections. She told me that, “policymakers behave as if money matters, members from both parties pass legislation that favors tax breaks for oil companies and factory farms while they cut funding for social safety nets.” The influence of corporations will only grow as corporations are now allowed to spend unlimited funding on political advertising and individuals are limited by contribution limits.
However, even these contribution limits don’t stand in the way of wealthy individuals. For example, as Mahoney explained, if you consider a large corporation, the CEO can give $2000, the CEO’s wife can give $2000, the CFO can give $2000, the CFO’s spouse can give $2000, and on down the line, until the higher ups at a corporation have given tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to candidates and political parties throughout the course of the primary and general elections. This money helps politicians win elections, and in return, Mahoney’s analysis shows, policymakers clearly vote in a manner not to offend major campaign donors.
Now that the Supreme Court has ruled that the government can’t limit spending by corporations, is there anyway for groups with divergent interests to overcome the spending power of these major corporations? The answer is yes and no.
The battle will happen not between corporations and citizen groups, most of which can’t compete financially with corporations, but rather, between corporations. There are a growing number of corporations who are looking closely at the value they create for society and trying to maximize that value; they subscribe to the idea of corporate social responsibility (CSR). Examples include Patagonia, which donates 1% of all profits to environmental causes, or Tom’s Shoes which provides one pair of shoes to needy children for every one pair purchased. Mahoney predicts that if we “celebrate and foster this corporate revolution, in time, we’ll have strong corporate allies for the legions of Civil Society organizations working to protect consumers, the environment, human rights and advocating for other social justice issues.” So although the political landscape will likely continue to be shaped by corporate interests, with the growth of CSR, we may see more of a battle between corporations than between corporations and individual citizens.
About the Blue Pencil
In publishing, blue pencils were traditionally used by editors to mark copy. Scholarly research is extremely relevant to current policy debates, but it is rarely edited with the goal of making it easy to understand for the average news consumer. With this blog, Dr. Connolly takes scholarly articles and condenses, summarizes, and recaps them to make them quick and easy to understand.