"Money On My Mind" is a monthly column by Jay Mandle. The views expressed here are those of the author, (not necessarily those of Democracy Matters or Common Cause), and are meant to stimulate discussion.
By Jay Mandle
Larry M. Bartels, a Princeton University political scientist, has broken new ground in the study of Congressional representation in a recently written but as yet unpublished paper. Bringing together survey data and roll call votes, Bartels finds that senators "were vastly more responsive to the views of affluent constituents than to constituents of modest means." His analysis suggests "that the views of constituents in the upper third of the income distribution received about 50% more weight than those in the middle third...while the views of constituents in the bottom third of the income distribution received no weight at all in the voting decisions of their senators."1 What this means is that it is no exaggeration to conclude that the Senate is more accountable to wealth than it is to citizens.
Who are those affluent constituents and what do they represent? Using data from the opensecrets.org website, I have calculated the political contributions of donors representing five groups of interests and shown how these funds were distributed between the Republican and Democratic Party.
Source: Computed from The Center for Responsive Politics, "The Big Picture 2004 Cycle Totals by Sector," www.opensecrets.org/bigpicture/sectors.asp?cycle=2004.
The most obvious single feature of this table is the dominance of the business sector. It far and away is larger than any other single category, providing slightly less than 60 percent of overall contributions. Furthermore, the business sector's contributions exceeded the combined amount of the other four (non-business) sectors by 28 percent. Most dramatic is the contrast between donations of the business sector and those of organized labor. Union members' donations of $61 million is paltry compared to the nearly $1 billion donated by business-identified people. When this information is combined with the fact revealed by survey data that political donors overwhelmingly are among the highest income earners in the country,2 there can be no mistaking the fact that the funding of electoral campaigns in the United States primarily is undertaken on behalf of Corporate America.
This table also reveals both the similarities and differences between the two dominant political parties. On one hand it is obvious that the Republican Party is much more dependent than the Democratic Party upon individual contributors representing business firms. While just about 70 percent of the funds received by Republicans came from this source, only 46.3 percent of the money going to the Democrats came from the business sector. In every other category aside from business the Democrats raise more money than do Republicans. This is particularly clear in the case of the Lawyers/Lobbyists category where the Democrats received $149 million compared to the $61 million received by Republicans. It is because of this diversity in funding sources that the Democrats were able to raise almost the same amount of money as Republicans: $845 million compared to $860 million.
At the same time the similarities between the two parties are obvious. Both depend on corporate financing. It is true that Republicans receive more business money than do the Democrats and proportionately receive more of their financing from this source. Nevertheless, it remains true that the corporate sector is the single most important source of Democratic Party funding. No other category approximates the $391 million that the business sector contributes to it. Even within the business sector, there is a similarity in the funding base of the two parties. The category described as Finance, Insurance and Real Estate is the leading business contributor for both parties, providing Republicans with $197 million and Democrats with $137 million. It is true that unionists provide their money almost exclusively to the Democrats. But even Democrats rely much more heavily upon business donations than upon contributions from organized working people.
The fact that business largely finances both major political parties narrowly circumscribes the range of politics and policies that are placed on the United States political agenda. Neither party can stray far from the interests of the corporate sector without putting in jeopardy its political viability. To be sure, the interests of all members of the business community are not identical. Conflicting priorities abound. Parties funded by businesses therefore have to adjudicate among these varying concerns in articulating their political platforms. Nevertheless, a great deal unites the business community - both in what it is for and in what it is against. It is because both parties depend on corporate funding that the business sector has the power to set the terms of American politics.
1. Larry M. Bartels, "Economic Inequality and Political Representation," (Unpublished paper, revised- August 2005) p 4, 28.
2. John Green et al, "Individual Congressional Contributors: Wealth, Conservative and Reform-Minded," http://www.opensecrets.org/pubs/donors/donors.asp.