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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.