What's the best way to buy influence at the statehouse? (w/poll)

A story in the Sunday Des Moines Register got me thinking about how money affects what happens and doesn’t happen in the Iowa House and Senate. The gist of the article is that many interest groups are providing free food and drink to legislators without properly disclosing how much they spend on these events.

State officials concede the disclosure law is not enforced. Senate Ethics Committee Vice Chairman Dick Dearden, D-Des Moines, said he does not recall any organization ever being punished for not filing reception disclosures properly.

“I don’t know if anyone ever checks them,” Dearden said. […]

Filings from groups that complied with the law show interest groups have spent $187,000 this year to arrange at least 66 events. That is about 4 percent less than was spent during last year’s legislative session and 15 percent less than in 2007.

Reported spending on the legislative parties peaked at $264,000 in 2005, when the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board oversaw the disclosures.

Enforcement has since shifted to the House and Senate ethics committees, and reported spending has declined each year since. […]

Tracking exactly which or how many organizations filed their reports properly is difficult because there is no master list of receptions and no state officials are charged with verifying the filings.

[Charlie] Smithson [executive director of the Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board] said groups were never punished for failing to file when his board oversaw the disclosures, but his staff reviewed the Legislature’s social calendar regularly and reminded groups to send proper documents.

It’s not encouraging to learn that no one is enforcing our disclosure rules. I know legislative receptions are probably not the most important way to buy political influence, but someone should be making groups comply with the rules.

After the jump I briefly examine a few of the ways an interest group with an agenda and a pile of cash could use that money. There’s also a poll at the end–please vote!

This post accepts as a given that no matter which party is in power, big money has too much influence in American politics. It’s a problem everywhere, but less of a problem in states that either strictly limit campaign contributions or have voluntary “clean elections” systems, like Maine and Arizona.

Writing in the Des Moines Register last December, Ed Fallon asserted that based on what he saw during 14 years in the Iowa House,

what big money wants, big money usually gets. Rank-and-file lawmakers may be well-intentioned but often are strong-armed by legislative leaders beholden to corporate donors and special interests. As a result, the most pressing challenges of our time – climate change, budgetary reform, health care, farm policy, to name a few – see practically no progress year after year.

I would phrase this axiom differently, because big money doesn’t always get what big money wants. For instance, big gambling interests weren’t able to get state officials to agree to sell the Iowa Lottery this year.

On the other hand, what big money doesn’t want, big money can block, and that is why we see almost no progress on solving various huge problems in this state.

Consider labor unions, a major source of campaign donations for Democratic candidates and leadership funds. We’ve see the past three sessions that even with Democrats in control, labor doesn’t usually get what it wants at the statehouse. Despite the expanded Democratic majorities in the Iowa House and Senate, none of labor’s legislative priorities have passed yet as the session winds down. (There is still a small chance that the collective bargaining or choice of doctor bills could pass, but I doubt it will happen.)

The other side of the coin is that organized labor is pretty good at stopping bills. For example, a proposal was introduced this year that would have imposed stronger emissions standards on cars in Iowa, as California has done. One whiff of opposition from the United Auto Workers, and that bill was history.

Here are a few common ways money can be invested for a political return.

1. Give campaign contributions through donors and/or political action committees (PACs).

Iowa places no limits on contributions to political candidates, and some lawmakers raise enormous amounts from wealthy individuals and PACs. Let’s pick on Iowa House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, because he is one of the most outspoken critics of real campaign finance reform (as opposed to the fake campaign finance reform that passed this year).

In 2008 alone, Kevin McCarthy took in more than $650,000 in campaign contributions, and more than $350,000 of that total came from PACs. In other words, one powerful legislator collected more in campaign contributions than all money reported to have been spent on legislative receptions for the past three years combined.

If campaign contributions didn’t buy access to some extent, people and groups wouldn’t spend so much money on political donations. Republican State Representative Linda Upmeyer used to lobby the legislature as the chair of the Iowa Nurses Association’s PAC, so she has experienced both sides of this equation. Advising nurse practitioners on how to shape public policy, Upmeyer wrote,

I once thought getting the attention of legislators was best done with a check – good contributions from citizens and associations. As legislator, I learned that is partly true, but only partly.

Campaigns are expensive, and legislators appreciate financial support. Associations may give donations based on a legislator’s ability to be helpful by serving on certain committees or acting in leadership roles. Lawmakers also appreciate personal checks because, in most cases, personal contributions convey personal support (i.e. votes).

You don’t have to be a donor to talk to a state legislator, but like Upmeyer says, legislators appreciate financial support for their re-election efforts.

2. Provide legislators with free food, drinks or entertainment.

The Des Moines Register’s inventory of disclosed legislative receptions indicated that at least $187,000 has been spent on these during the 2009 session. That’s a little down on the 2008 figure of $195,000. (The Register got these figures by adding figures from this page, which shows legislative receptions reported during the past five years.)

It’s not that anyone would sell his or her vote because of a few free drinks and hors d’oevres. The value of these receptions is in giving advocates a chance to meet lawmakers face to face. Group members usually talk about their legislative priorities during these events, but more important, they get to know the state representatives and senators in person. Upmeyer writes from her perspective as a legislator,

If I speak with someone face to face, I am more likely to understand an issue, ask questions and discuss the best course of action to take.

3. Hire a good lobbyist.

Most groups that can afford to hire a lobbyist feel that they got their money’s worth. A good lobbyist has lots of contacts at the statehouse and may even be a former state representative or senator.

An acquaintance who has worked as a clerk at the statehouse once told me that it’s much better to spend money on a lobbyist than a reception. There are so many receptions during the session, and lawmakers are too busy to attend most of them.

I suspect this person is correct, because the amount of money interest groups spend on lobbyists dwarfs what they spend on receptions.

During the 2008 legislative session, some 610 groups “paid lobbyists a total of more than $8.5 million to influence lawmakers.” (Remember, the price tag for legislative dinners and receptions disclosed during 2008 was just $195,000.)

4. Pay for direct mail, phone banks or other ways to mobilize large numbers of Iowans.

Interest groups may organize a rally day or protest at the state capitol or urge members and supporters to write and call their legislators about a specific bill.

Many people who have worked in the statehouse have told me that lawmakers notice if they get many letters, calls or e-mails about an upcoming vote. It doesn’t always change their votes, but it gets their attention. Conversely, if they don’t hear from anyone for or against a certain bill, they will assume it isn’t a hot-button issue for very many voters.

Obviously a well-funded interest group will do all of the above, which is great if you can afford it.

But I’d like to hear from the Bleeding Heartland community (and off the record from anyone who wants to e-mail me confidentially at desmoinesdem AT yahoo.com): if a group has a limited amount to spend, which type of political spending is likely to give the most bang for the buck?  

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