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Really Want to Influence Politicians? Stop Donating to Campaigns

To Influence Politicians, Stop Sending Them Money Election season is coming, and politicians across the spectrum are already hunting for contributions. But with the vast majority of political donations coming from lobbies, corporations, and wealthy families, does it make sense for average taxpayers to contribute to political campaigns?

To a great extent, the answer depends on your household, says Michael Beckel, a spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks the effects of donations and lobbying in government. Based on figures released by the Federal Election Commission, the Center has determined that only 0.11% of voting-aged Americans donate $200 or more to political campaigns. But this relatively tiny group -- it numbers fewer than 260,000 people -- accounts for more than 72% of all individual campaign donations.

This generosity comes with strings attached. "These elites are paying for access," Beckel notes. "Campaign contributors get their voices heard by candidates and staffers." This, in turn, can have a powerful economic impact on legislation: "It sometimes manifests itself in the laws that are passed ... and in the laws that aren't. Campaign contributors can slow down the passage of regulations."

Paying for Access

When it comes to campaign contributions, lobbyists and corporations can easily outspend the average family. A good illustration of this is the congressional supercommittee, which was created in order to shave $1.2 trillion from the nation's budget. Given the scope of the cuts that they are expected to make, it's likely that the supercommittee's decisions will affect every aspect of American life, from tax rates to Medicare to funding for public schools. Not surprisingly, its members have become major targets for corporate donations. In fact, since the supercommittee was empaneled, its members have more than doubled their daily fundraising totals.

According to the Project on Government Oversight, the six House members on the supercommittee have increased their average daily fundraising by $2,270 since joining the board. In other words, every day that these elected officials are on the supercommittee, they take in more than twice the weekly paycheck of the median American household. Needless to say, this level of fundraising dwarfs what they can get from the average voter.

And who is behind these contributions? Not surprisingly, many of the lobbyists passing cash to the congressmen represent those who will be affected by the committee's findings. For example, the committee members' decisions about Medicare may be influenced by the money they are receiving from AFLAC (AFL), the American Medical Association, Abbott Laboratories (ABT) and Merck (MRK). As for their decisions on taxing the rich, it's hard to see how the committee members will be able to remain unbiased when they're receiving fat checks from Bank of America (BAC), J.P. Morgan Chase (JPM), and North County Aviation, a private jet company.

The Way Forward

If voters can't outspend lobbyists and corporations, how can they ensure their elected representatives will be responsive to their needs? Gretchen Hamel, Executive Director of Public Notice, a nonpartisan governmental education group, argues that the answer lies with voters: "At the end of the day, voters need to hold members of Congress accountable. They need to be educated on the issues."

For voters who want to know which politicians are in which pockets, one useful resource is The Center for Responsive Politics' Open Secrets site, which itemizes the relationships between politicians, lobbyists and industries.

Another solution is to stop playing the fundraising game at all. In August, Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks (SBUX), launched a boycott of corporate campaign donations. In an e-mail to other business leaders, he wrote: "I am asking that all of us forego political contributions until the Congress and the President return to Washington and deliver a fiscally disciplined long-term debt and deficit plan to the American people." Schultz is talking about serious money: In 2010, Starbucks gave more than $730,000 to lobbyists. It remains to be seen if the CEO's boycott will actually change the way the government does business, but Beckel points out that "If enough donors withhold contributions, it will be noticed by the politicians who have been receiving those contributions."

The same could be said of middle class families that donate money to political campaigns. In 2010-2011, almost $164 million in campaign funds came from contributors who gave less than $200. While the influence and voice attached to a single $200 donation might be minor, the absence of many of them could speak volumes.

Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at bruce.watson@teamaol.com, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.

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Rick Johnson

With all this data Obama still wants us to believe he raised almost a QUARTER A BILLION DOLLARS from donations of $200 or less.

August 08 2012 at 1:25 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jose Dejesus


November 07 2011 at 10:53 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Before I consider donating I ask :

Are you a lawyer by education
Are you an incumbent

If either answer is YES, I say " I don't believe anything you say and HELL NO

November 07 2011 at 10:19 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply


Get the money out of politics folks!!....Make lobbying illegal and limit contributions to $100 per donee including corporations. Take back the USA from special interests and level the playing field for average citizens and the middle class.

November 07 2011 at 2:12 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply


November 06 2011 at 6:52 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

In fact I have no real plans to donate to campaigns because the money will be carelessly spent on other things.

November 06 2011 at 3:11 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Good article because I can feel the cash donation arms race our elections have become now dragging in the ordinary taxpayer by scaring him to death that is they don't donate they other side is going to deflorinate the water suppy. put woman in chains, outlaw birth control, etc etc etc, and it might even be true. I think its pathetic for our political class to so scare the general public to get money out of them its just another form of the massive corruption our entire system is groaning under. These politicans better think twice though as they are now asking the disenfranchiesed classes to send them their little hard earned money they have and they are going to expect results. When the results don't come the real disgust will start.

November 06 2011 at 1:46 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It's quite simple really. Th only campaign contributions that should be allowed is by individual citizens at $100 maximum. It levels the playing field.
The argument against that is that it limits the first ammendment, but the main reason is that a congressman gets to keep his warchest when he retires. Also, the incumbent has a great advantage in raising campaign funds.

November 05 2011 at 11:47 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I would not donate anything to any of them both Dem and Rep they are all crooks and liers

November 05 2011 at 8:35 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Least we forget, the very Honorable Judge Henry Lee Adams, Jr. , The very Honorable Senator Bill Nelson. Two of handful of policticos who transcend as much as humanly possible your stereo typical politician.

November 05 2011 at 6:15 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply