Part II: We all know money is a corrupting force, right?

(My last post began a long discussion on the OHP list. Here’s some of my follow-up.)

I don’t believe any of my transparency colleagues believe that there is a pervasive systematic problem with Hill staff & Members making literally corrupt decisions on a regular basis. However, I’m sure everyone here recognizes systemic selection biases (who can afford to get elected) and incentives (the revolving door) that are worthy of study.

The net effect of these biases and incentives is not clear, but there is certainly an effect. We know there have been a few bad apples and it is the public’s duty to be on the lookout for more. And we know that the biases and incentives affect policy results i.e. through who is elected, how committees are assigned, what lobbyists/advocates have access to Congress’s ears, and maybe in some more pernicious ways.

Now whether the net effect is in some sense good, neutral, or bad is something we’re disagreeing on. Tom is basically defending neutral, while most else would say bad.

Compared to what, and how would you know?

The problem with this discussion is that we can’t make up a hypothetical less-money-obsessed world world that we would all agree on. Take away money and some other aspect of the human condition is going to take its place. And even if we could imagine a world, how would you measure if that world was better off?

I’ll try to tie this back into the point I initially made:

Discovering bad applies through investigative, data-driven reporting is great for the country. It is actionable information. But while reporting on mere “correlation” establishes a *possible* bias or incentive, it neither indicates an actual effect on policy nor suggests any action that we could take that we could be reasonably sure would in fact improve policymaking.

Of course, correlations can be the beginning of an investigative project. Paul Blumenthal’s recent post “Incoming finance committee chairman relies on finance campaign contributions” raises a lot of concern over correlations. But its relevance is backed up by other observations and makes a good case that, at the very least, the media should be keeping a close eye on a Member of Congress who is being tempted by some very strong incentives. Hopefully he’ll resist the temptations.

We all know money is a corrupting force, right?

In some circles it’s taken for granted that money corrupts. But how much for granted should we be taking it?

For instance, last month Lisa Rosenberg wrote for Sunlight that without additional election spending disclosure we are headed toward the “corruption of our democracy by secret campaign spending.” And describes its mission as being a watchdog for when “[e]lected officials collect large sums of money to run their campaigns, and they often pay back campaign contributors with special access and favorable laws.”

I certainly don’t doubt that money can corrupt, especially systemically. My favorite open secret is that Members of Congress are assigned to committee in part by how well they have fund-raised for the party (which to me sounds like a simple bribe).

But where I get worried is when an organization’s reporting arm gets caught up in reporting only on one side, making the body of evidence appear to support that corruption is wide-spread when in fact it is the exception rather than the rule, let alone a systemic problem.

What prompted me to write this was actually a blog post over at the Center for Responsive Politics that exemplifies exactly the type of reporting that is often missing. Megan Wilson writes on OpenSecrets today that “General Motors’ Political Committee Cut Big Checks to Lawmakers Who Voted Against Company’s Bailout.” Wison calls it “ironic,” that GM’s PAC seemed to be promoting candidates against its own interests. Well, not exclusively but at least two-to-one (“$63,500 to [congressmen] who voted against federal assistance for the company. That’s more than one-third of the overall amount GM gave to all House candidates this election cycle.”).

Ironic is one way to look at it. But more interesting to me is that of all times you might think we would see some easily understood evidence of a corrupting influence of money, lo and behold we see clearly that that’s not the case.

There is hope for our system after all.

I’m going to take a little shot at a post Wilson wrote in September, “Journalists, Media Professionals Donating Frequently to Federal Political Candidates this Election Cycle“. She wrote, “235 people … identified themselves on government documents as journalists, or as working for news organizations, who together have donated more than $469,900 to federal political candidates, committees and parties during the 2010 election cycle … with the median amount donated coming in at $500.”

As she noted, many of the donations came from those employed by “lighter fare” such as ESPN, or were employed in a non-reporting (i.e. business) role. She provided a spreadsheet of the numbers she used. When I looked over it, to me it appeared as if around half of the contributions were from individuals whose job description clearly indicated there was no conflict of interest: science writers, radio talk show hosts, etc.

If you’ll give me the benefit of the doubt here, or even if you don’t, we’re talking about about 100-200 people nation-wide who were journalists who might have made a conflict-of-interest mistake. That sounds pretty good to me! Where’s the reporting on the other 90,000 journalists that abstained from contributing to a candidate? Is there any substantial impact on reporting or on policymaking that resulted from any of these so-thought bad contributions? I doubt it. (If any of the contributions were in any sense nefarious, they are from people who do more political damage by what they report, rather than by who they give money to.)

So, those are my thoughts tonight.