I'm sure we didn't need the LA Times to tell us that the Social Security privatization debate is becoming more heated. My real objection, however, is that the reporter does what lazy journalists do in a polarized political world -- mistake quoting both sides for objectivity.
Let's compare the evidence of mudslinging put forward. On the one hand, there is the campaign of the swifters to label the AARP as anti-troops and pro-gay. On the other hand, there are ads by Campaign for America's Future run in the hometown papers of pro-privatization Rep. Jim McCrery saying he is not working in the interests of his constituents. On the one hand, the RNC calls CAF a "liberal front group" from "the Michael Moore wing." On the other hand, the DCCC has posted quotes from prominent Republicans showing them contradict themselves about Social Security privatization.
Notice any difference? The strategy of the right is to attack with innuendo at best tenuously connected with the substance of the issue, not to mention tenuously connected with the truth, and to attack not the decision-makers themselves but those supporting the decision-makers. The strategy of the left, on the other hand, is to engage on the issue at hand by documenting the record of leading Republican policymakers. To say that the two are playing the same game, as the Times reporter implies, disguises the fundamentally dishonest and dishonorable tactics the right employs.
McCrery's response to the charges?
"I get contributions from all kinds of interests, and so does almost every other member of Congress," McCrery said. "To impugn the motives of a member of Congress based on his campaign contributions is not appropriate and has no standing in the arena of political debate."
That is patently false. He and the rest do not get contributions "from all kinds of interests." Interests donate money to those who will support their issues, and as such the question is absolutely appropriate and does have standing in political debate. Perhaps he simply would prefer not to reflect on his sources of financial support.
The article points out, probably correctly, that CAF cannot identify a specific favor McCrery did due to a contribution. That obsession over a smoking gun misses the point, however; as any prosecutor will tell you, one does not need a smoking gun to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
It may be a topic to explore in greater detail some other day, but for now a brief sketch of the matter of campaign contributions. There has been much research over the past couple of decades on the link between campaign contributions and policymaking. For the most part, the evidence comes down to little more than a correlation between the two. As any first-year stats student will tell you, correlation is not causation, and evidence of direct causation -- a contribution or a pattern of contributions leading to a specific policy -- has proved elusive. Yes, there are a few evocative anecdotal stories, but little systematic evidence to support the broad claims of corruption.
The fundamental reason is that contributions tend to go to candidates who already support the group's point of view. That is to say, rather than buying a vote they are a way to get a supporter of one's issue into office. While one can still make an equity claim that this advantages those interests with the money to spend, it is a far cry from the corruption claim.
There is another element of the conventional story which is also vastly oversimplified: Campaign contributions don't buy votes on bills. If that were the case, then we would expect that most contributions would go to the swing voters in Congress, the moderates who would tip the balance on a roll call vote from one side to the other. In fact, that is not the case. A disproportionate share of contributions go to strong supporters, not to the weak supporters and undecideds. Again, if it's about corruption and vote buying, donating to strong supporters seems a waste of money.
But these PACs and other big donors don't waste their money. What do they get in return? Certainly there ought to be some payoff for them in Congress -- and therefore some reason for us to be concerned -- but what is it? A pattern we see generally, illustrated by McCrery, is that most contributions go to members of the committees with jurisdiction over an issue, and especially the chairs. Our first tip-off, then, is that whatever influence that is bought is upstream, long before bills get to the floor.
Rick Hall at the University of Michigan has written that most of the important work of Congress is done by the select few who choose to participate in committee and subcommittee deliberations. On a given issue, only some members of the committee or subcommittee will be involved in writing the bill and its amendments, negotiating deals, working with interest groups, and shepherding it to the floor. Hall and a coauthor found that while campaign contributions do not buy votes, they do buy participation. That is to say, a PAC donor is able to mobilize a supporter to become more active on the issue in committee.
Which brings us back to McCrery. The reason the question of campaign contributions absolutely is a valid subject of debate is that he is chair of the Ways and Means subcommittee which will get the first crack at the privatization bill. He is also someone, as Josh Marshall has documented on many an occasion, who has expressed only lukewarm support for the president's proposal at times. What does the money do? It prompts a conservative already sympathetic to the "ownership society" to set aside his concerns and sell the president's plan. And lately that's just what he's done.
So while the right wages a war with innuendo, aspersions and misdirection, the left has engaged the core of the debate directly. For once, let's hope the facts win out.