In this gilded-age election, big money is speaking louder than ever. And voters and large contributors to both parties agree that when money talks, politicians listen. About three-fourths of all voters and major donors believe that half the time or more, members of Congress decide what to do based on what their contributors want rather than what they really believe, according to a survey conducted by Lake, Snell, Perry and Associates for the Nation Institute and the Institute for Americaπs Future.
The survey, conducted in June, interviewed 1,000 voters and 200 major political contributors who had contributed $5,000 or more to national candidates since 1997 (100 donors to Democratic candidates and 100 to Republican candidates). The Center for Responsive Politics reports that about 235,000 people contributed $1,000 or more to any federal election candidate in the 1996 election cycle, about one-tenth of 1 percent of the population. Those who did were more white, more male, older and, no surprise, wealthier than Americans as a whole. Their agreements and disagreements with most voters describe much of what is wrong with Americaπs money-drenched politics.
Both donors and voters are cynical about our political system. More than half of all voters say “special interests and lobbyists” have the “most control over what goes on in Washington, DC,” as opposed to the President (12 percent), the parties in Congress (19 percent combined) or citizens and voters (5 percent). Similarly, 41 percent of donors agree that special interests and lobbyists have the most control, with the President coming in second at 16 percent. Three-fourths of voters and a majority of large donors agree that “large businesses and corporations” have too much influence on the federal government. (Only Republicans split, with a majority of Republican fat cats–53 percent–saying that businesses have the right amount or too little influence, while 68 percent of Republican voters think they have too much.) And not surprisingly, both donors and voters have grown markedly more cynical in the four years since we last posed a similar question.
Large majorities of voters and almost half of all donors are appalled by what Washington would consider business as usual–for example, the fact that Lockheed Martin, the military contractor, received more than $12.7 billion in prime contracts last year after spending $8.2 million on lobbying and political contributions. We asked whether an American company spending money to advocate its own interests in Washington was engaging in “a normal and ethical way to do business” or a form of “legalized bribery.” Inside the Beltway, of course, lobbying is a desirable and lucrative profession that more and more legislators pursue upon leaving Congress. But 71 percent of voters consider it legalized bribery, and only 19 percent a normal part of doing business. Even large donors split, with 43 percent considering it legalized bribery and 44 percent saying itπs a normal way of doing business.
What do big contributors get for their money? They get access. Perhaps the most striking finding of the poll was that while 54 percent of large donors had personally spoken to a federal elected official in the past year, only 9 percent of voters had. When politicians go back home every weekend, they may talk at their voters via radio or TV shows, but they talk with their contributors.