Ranking Influence in Washington


It’s not just because of the name that I like the idea behind this new report (actually, the first installment of a new report) from Public Citizen’s Congress Watch: it brings together several kinds of information on members of Congress in one place. It lets users look at contribution totals to incumbents from lobbyists, PACs, donors who don’t live in the member’s home state, small (under $200) donors, as well information on the junkets that members and their staff have taken. It also provides nice summary data by state (here’s New York, for example).

It’s nice having this summary data in one place, and I think the site goes a long way toward showing that neither party has clean hands when it comes to being under the influence of special interests: money seeks power, and incumbents, who need the former, have the latter.

Laura MacCleery, the director of CongressWatch, summarized their findings:

Overall, the data show the influence of money in politics is pervasive. Candidates across the political spectrum are far too dependent on big money donors, lobbyists, out-of-state money and goodies like privately funded travel. I will just highlight examples of the findings from just two of the states.

With regard to California, we point out that Rep. Bill Thomas ran uncontested in the 2004 election, yet still raised more than $2.6 million, relying largely on political action committees (PACs). Among members of the California delegation, Thomas received the highest amount of contributions from PACs per cycle ($1.8 million), the second-highest percentage of contributions from out of state (71.2 percent) and the third-highest amount of contributions from lobbyists per cycle ($122,980). Thomas also received only 18.6 percent of such contributions from small donors (calculation excludes PACs), giving him the fifth-lowest such ratio among members of California’s congressional delegation.

In Ohio, Rep. Michael Oxley was the highest recipient of contributions from lobbyists in the Ohio congressional delegation, averaging $167,048 per two-year election cycle. House Majority Leader John Boehner was second on the list of K Street recipients, at $147,833 per cycle. Oxley also had the greatest reliance on out-of-state donors, at $649,302 per cycle, accounting for an astounding 81.9 percent of Oxley’s contributions from individuals. Boehner was second in this category, as well, with $458,239 in out-of-state payments per cycle.

Some defend the system by saying that the money does not buy legislative votes, that it instead only buys access. That fine distinction separating legal from illegal influence is sometimes honored in the breach. We have seen a year filled with allegations that the funding for junkets, parties and candidates does indeed buy votes, as in the case of Abramoff’s influence-peddling political machinery.

MacCleery promises that the site will have cumulative rankings when all 50 states are done. I’m skeptical of such ranks, though, especially since they seem unable to capture the very human dimension–the anecdotal events that really bring clarity to who does what in Washington, like this item reported by Robert Novak:

Sen. Ted Stevens, considered the Republican king of pork, just before the pre-election congressional recess killed a requirement for the Defense Department to evaluate unauthorized earmarks imposed by members of Congress on the Pentagon.

Freshman Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma had won Senate passage of the “report card” as part of the Defense appropriations bill. The evaluation would show that the military really does not want most of the estimated $8 billion in earmarks added by Congress this year.

However, Stevens succeeded in stripping the reform from the final version of the bill before it was signed by President Bush. Coburn intends to try to pass the report card as a freestanding bill during the lame-duck session following the election. Coburn has shown no hesitation in challenging Stevens, the Senate’s president pro tempore and senior Republican.

It will be interesting to see how Coburn and Stevens compare on the CongressWatch list…