Monday, June 4, 2007

"Illuminating the Connection"

Politics equals money. That's what the general public, for the most part, believes. It's certainly the story line coming from most news sources, and during debate, it's what a politician will tell you guides his or her opponent's interests.

David Pogue, the eminent technology writer at the New York Times writes on his blog about a new website,, which claims to illuminate the connection between money and politics. The site describes itself as:
"...a groundbreaking public database, [that] illuminates the connection between campaign donations and legislative votes in unprecedented ways. Elected officials collect large sums of money to run their campaigns, and they often pay back campaign contributors with special access and favorable laws." is brilliant in its simplicity (even if the website isn't—as Pogue points out—entirely intuitive or analytically complete). At present, the site includes the ability to search for information about both the U.S. Congress and the California legislature, and it aims to exhibit basically three sets of data: bills, interest groups, and legislators. offers a search by bill. It shows the legislators that did want this bill to pass, the legislators that did not, and the related special interests that paid to influence each legislator. For example, I selected to review the U.S. Congress >Bills>Education>College>H.R.5 - College Student Relief Act of 2007. (N.B. I am very much interested in the issue of student loans, as Sallie Mae and her gangster thugs visit my bank account once a month to extract a large portion of my paycheck. This bill, according to, has passed the house, but has not passed the senate or been signed into law. It would reduce interest rates on subsidzed student loans, which would be good. However, a vast majority of student loans are not subsidized; thus, it's only a small step in the right direction.) The bill was sponsored by George Miller, Democrat from California, who represents the 7th district—a weird blob that includes Bay Area cities from Richmond to Vacaville. (View his breakdown.) The bill passed with 356 Ayes, 71 Nays, and 8 no votes.

The analysis of this bill shows that voting in Congress is more complicated than the money for votes idea that the site and writers like Mr. Pogue suggest. In this example, more money was implicitly spent opposing the issue than for it, yet the bill overwhelmingly passed. Was it conscience? Politics? (Most likely, as who could return to a home district to say they oppose helping out needy high schoolers wanting to go to college.) Nevertheless, it doesn't appear to be money, despite the paradigm that they're suggesting exits. Mr. Pogue does allude to this paradox, but hardly backs away from the correlation:
"Now, not all bills exhibit the same money-to-outcome relationships. And it’s not news that our lawmakers’ campaigns accept money from special interests. What this site does, however, is to expose, often embarrassingly, how that money buys votes."
I was going to wax about this, but I read two comments posted on Mr. Pogue's blog that address my problems with this concept perfectly:
"Almost every legitimate political scientist agrees that money does not buy votes. Think of it this way: why would an interest group donate money to a politician who doesn’t support their interests? And why shouldn’t they donate to politicians who agree with their goals? Correlation does not mean causality."
I believe you have drawn a false conclusion of the type 'Post hoc ergo propter hoc,' Latin for 'after this, therefore because of this.' [snip] Just because a candidate voted in favor of his or her contributor does not PROVE the money bought their vote; it merely supports the assertion.
Mr. Pogue is right about most things. In this case, he joins many others in illogically oversimplifying complex issues.

As for the remaining two data sets provides, you can search by legislator (e.g. search for Nancy Pelosi and see that she gets most of her special interest money from attorneys and law firms). And you can search by interest group category (e.g. Eduction).

I don't deny that money can buy votes, and there is certainly enough pork in every bill to spread the bacon wide and high. We do need to be better at holding legislators accountable, and is a useful tool in this pursuit. We also need to address issues with nuanced and cogent argument.

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