How Cheap Are Politicians?

Dan Morgan has another excellent Washington Post report on our tangled web of farm subsidies, tariffs, government purchases, and so on. This time he examines the sugar industry’s political contributions–“more than 900 separate contributions totaling nearly $1.5 million to candidates, parties and political funds” in 2007 alone. Most of the money went to Democrats, apparently, which might explain why Democrats opposed more strongly than Republicans an amendment to strike the sugar subsidy provisions from the bill. Morgan delights in pointing out members of Congress such as Rep. Carolyn Maloney of Queens and Manhattan and Rep. Steven Rothman of bucolic Hackensack and Fort Lee, New Jersey, who received funds from the sugar magnates and voted to protect their subsidies despite the fact that they would seem to have more sugar consumers than sugar growers in their districts.

One wants to be careful here. The assumption that contributions drive congressional votes is often exaggerated. Party, ideology, region, religion, and other factors may have much more influence on how a member votes than contributions, and contributions often reflect a member’s votes rather than the other way around. Nevertheless, the sugar subsidy is so manifestly a bad policy, and support for it seems so obviously an odd position for urban northeastern Democrats, that it is hard to resist the suspicion that contributions play a role in getting 282 members of the House of Representatives to support it.

So $1.5 million is a lot of money, and it seems to have done the trick. But … is it really so much money? According to Morgan, the sugar provisions in the farm bill are worth $1 billion over 10 years. That’s a huge return on investment. In what other way could a business invest $1.5 million to reap $1 billion? And look at the contributions–“more than 900 separate contributions totaling nearly $1.5 million.” That is, the average contribution was less than $1700. Morgan writes that a fundraiser for Maloney raised $9,500, and she also received $5,000 from a union that represented sugar workers. Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) received $5,500 from sugar interests. That’s not very much money.

So the really interesting question is why we don’t see more such investments. If indeed, as Morgan’s article would lead us to believe, an investment of $1.5 million in political contributions can ensure a payoff of $1 billion, why doesn’t everyone do it? Congress hands out some $2.8 trillion a year. There aren’t many pots of money in our society bigger than that. Getting one percent of that, or one-hundredth of one percent of that, would be worth a lot. Maybe we shouldn’t talk about this, lest politicians start raising their prices and lobbyists persuade even more industries to invest in Washington.