Under the Influence:
Special Interest Money and Members of Congress
This site ranks members of Congress according to their acceptance of several categories of campaign contributions since the 2000 election cycle:
- Overall Rankings: Get the score on your Senator or Representative;
- K Street Cash: View the amount of money received from lobbyists in the Senate and the House;
- On Tour: View the amount of money received from out-of-state donors in the Senate and the House;
- Fat Cats or Passing the Hat: View the amount of money from large versus small donors in the Senate and the House; and
- PAC-Men and PAC-Women: View the amount of money from political action committees (PACs) to the Senate and the House.
Adjustments were made to the data to ensure an apples-to-apples comparison, and the adjusted data were used for the rankings. (Read our methodology.)
Scandals connecting prominent members of Congress to special interest lobbyists, including the admissions of guilt by Reps. Randy “Duke” Cunningham of California, Bob Ney of Ohio and lobbyist Jack Abramoff show that there is an urgent need to revitalize our democracy. Other investigations that are still pending, including an inquiry about $90,000 in cash found in the freezer of Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana and alleged wrongdoing by Rep. Jerry Lewis of California, reinforce the lesson that integrity must be restored to Congress. Yet when members of Congress faced a historic opportunity to enact meaningful lobbying and ethics reforms, they failed.
Some states recently responded to similar scandals by reforming state election systems, opting for public funding. What is good for state legislators would also be good for members of Congress. On the federal level, as this report shows, powerful interests and lobbyists spend millions of dollars to gain access to elected officials, and are rewarded with billions of taxpayer dollars in return. The potential leaders of tomorrow who refuse to play this game or do not have access to millions cannot get a start in politics today.
The costs of this pay-to-play system are high. Issues that concern ordinary citizens get left behind: skyrocketing gas prices fail to spur a plan for energy independence; a soaring federal budget deficit produces more spending without an end in sight; members of Congress get a raise while the minimum wage stagnates. Most tellingly, Congress is so tightly in the grip of special interests that meaningful lobbying or ethics reform dies before enactment, despite criminal indictments of sitting Congressional members.
Some members are addressing the issue of special interest money directly. The following members declined money from PACs: Reps. Wayne Gilchrest, Jim Leach, Tom Osborne, Todd Platts and Sen. Herb Kohl.
The Solution: Public Funding of Elections
The problem of money and its influence in elections is fundamental and must be addressed with a fundamental solution: the public funding of congressional elections.
Public funding puts voters back at the center of elections. Candidates collect an established number of small contributions, such as $5, from supporters. A set number of these donations make them eligible for public campaign funds, if the candidate agrees to accept no additional private money and abide by strict spending limits. When candidates face privately funded opponents who outspend them or independent expenditures on behalf of their opposition, they qualify for additional funding, up to a limit.
The benefits of public funding for congressional candidates are substantial:
- More and different voices would be heard on Capitol Hill;
- There would be less pressure on lawmakers to cater to special interest donors;
- Candidates would spend less time raising money, and more time serving the public and speaking with constituents; and
- Public confidence in the integrity of elections and elected officials would increase.