Public Campaign’s bogus study

Unless I missed a memo, the nation is still debating the merits of overhauling the health care system. Individuals and groups on all sides of the issue are still free to participate in the debate as well as make political contributions. 

Never missing an opportunity to decry “corruption,” however, the folks at Public Campaign Action Fund have concluded that political contributions are the reason certain legislators vote the way they do. Their conclusion, of course, gives Public Campaign the ability to advance their agenda through media-friendly sound bites, including this from national campaign director David Donnelly: “These findings point to the need for Congress to pass the Fair Elections Now Act, which would free elected officials from the pressures of fundraising.”

Their recently released “study” looked at contributions to key congressional committees in the health care debate from the “health and insurance industry,” a category defined by the Center for Responsive Politics and at no time clarified as to exactly who that includes — again alluding to the fact that, as far as Public Campaign is concerned, there is one side to the health care debate and the entire, undefined category of the “health and insurance industry” is on the wrong side of it. As CCP has noted before, such broad hyperbole is demonstrably false, as the health insurance is factionalized with numerous, often contradictory interests. Moreover, the majority of advertising spending so far has been in favor of action on Public Citizen’s view of health care reform.

There are two main problems with this report and this line of reasoning, which is prevalent in the “reform” community. First, it simply ignores the complexity of an issue like health care by demonizing one side and assuming those opposed to their favored policy must be “corrupt.” The practice of equating political contributions to lawmakers who disagree with your position as bribes is not just intellectually dishonest and lazy, it ignores the reality that the other side of the debate also has interested parties participating and contributing to the campaigns of lawmakers who agree with their side. Yet few at Public Campaign or elsewhere would, I suspect, argue that those voting for their favored version of health care reform are only doing so because they receive funding from these other interested parties, such as unions or trial lawyers.

This leads to the second — and larger  — problem, which is conveniently stated in the conclusion of the report, where Public Campaign writes that “whether an individual member of Congress is more likely to vote for or against a piece of legislation because of contributions is not at issue.” 

That is exactly the issue, and it’s extremely telling that Public Campaign chooses to address and summarily dismiss it.  As this report demonstrates, when you aggregate a large amount of information, talk only in sweeping terms, and use anecdotal evidence to support your case, it’s easy to invent support for your cause. But the issue at hand is exactly whether contributions are the reason legislators vote for or against a piece of legislation.  And an overwhelming amount of the academic literature supports the case that it does not. 

By cavalierly dismissing this argument without presenting evidence to the contrary, Public Campaign is essentially conceding that while they can’t prove their point, they can make baseless and inaccurate leaps to false conclusions about taxpayer funded campaigns.

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.