Academic journal article Texas Law Review

Money and Institutional Power

Academic journal article Texas Law Review

Money and Institutional Power

Article excerpt


Money is power. The identity is simple enough, even axiomatic. Most commentary on and criticism of American campaign finance begins with this proposition, though many social scientists are skeptical that donors get much for their contributions.1 We come not to dispute this principle but to turn it on its head.

We begin with the notion that interest group money, however much it recoups from politicians in services or public policies, is targeted at those in political power. Or, to be precise, the constitutive powers of offices determine the ability of the politicians within those offices to raise campaign contributions. This principle, if true, carries important lessons about both the amount of money flowing into legislative and executive races and which offices hold the balance of political power in the United States.

Over the last two decades, political scientists have given careful consideration to the theoretical bases of institutional power in the United States.2 The core idea of these institutional arguments is that various arrangements-such as committees, party caucuses, and administrative agencies-create veto points that concentrate power within one branch of government and that might give that branch greater power than other bodies.3 A number of important, potentially testable arguments about the balance of political power have emerged from this research. One particularly provocative claim is that even with the rise of parties, professionalism, and committees, the branches of government and chambers within each branch will maintain roughly equal powers.4 If one branch or chamber tries to gain power over a policy area by increasing its capacity (say, its staff) or by erecting a possible veto (say, a committee), then the other branches or chambers will respond in kind. Thus, in equilibrium or over the long run the powers of the chambers in a bicameral legislature should be roughly equal, as one might expect the powers of the executive and the legislature as a whole to be.5

To test this controversial institutional argument we propose an equally outrageous measure of power: money. More precisely, interest groups' campaign donations should reflect the political power embedded in the differing offices sought by competing politicians. Contributors seeking to influence the policy process, which we call "investors," should target their money to the individuals in the policy process who will have the greatest influence over the fate of the policies that concern the contributors. Aggregating up beyond the individual politician, total contributions from interested donors to all the candidates running for an office should reflect the total powers of that office.

An important caveat goes along with this measure. We propose money as a metric of the powers possessed by politicians or inherent in specific offices. We do not believe that campaign donations offer a straightforward measure of the power of groups. Interest groups may give large amounts of money because they lack other important political resources, such as votes.6 Likewise, some large membership associations, such as the AARP, might rely mainly on its membership to influence Congress, rather than give money directly.7 We propose campaign receipts as a metric of the power of office, not the power of contributors and groups. Contributions from interested donors to candidates for office reflect the ability of the politicians to influence government decisions. If all power is concentrated in the hands of one body of government, say the governor, and the other bodies are merely rubber stamps, then all contributors who wish to influence public policies must give to the governor. The share of all interest group money that flows to politicians competing for a given office, then, should reflect the relative power of that office. If we had similar measures of other resources mobilized by interested groups, we could construct similar measures of power. …

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