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American Oligarchy: How the preferences of elites shape policy outcomes

This frequently reproduced cartoon depicts corporate interests as giant money bags looming over the tiny senators at their desks in the Chamber.
“The Bosses of the Senate” by Joseph Keppler

At Sunlight we spend a lot of time trying to make sense of who has a say in the policy making process, and whose perspective is being heard. Time and time again we find that well-organized corporate interests are far more involved in the process than ordinary citizens, or the underfunded groups that seek to represent them.

Now, a recent paper — forthcoming in Perspectives on Politics by political scientists Marty Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin Page of Northwestern — has provided some really striking empirical evidence that the kinds of imbalances we have observed anecdotally in our work at Sunlight are actually systematic features of modern American democracy. The preferences of economic elites and business interests, according to Gilens and Page, significantly shape policy outcomes — and the preferences of average citizens simply don’t.

Gilens and Page looked at 1,779 high salience policy issues between 1981 and 2002. They compared whether these specific policies were adopted or not dependent on the preferences of median income citizens and wealthy individuals, measured through public opinion surveys and the activities of mass-based and business-oriented interest groups.

They found that the percentage of average citizens who favored a policy being enacted had no demonstrable effect on the likelihood that the policy would pass. The top chart in the figure below demonstrates this finding: As the percentage of citizens supporting a policy increases, the likelihood that that policy will pass does not increase – the line is horizontal.

Conversely, the second chart indicates that elites are very influential: As the percentage of economic elites favoring a policy increases, the likelihood that the policy will be adopted increases as well.

The final chart in the figure below shows that policies are unlikely to be adopted when many powerful interest groups are aligned against them.

Chart from Gilens & Page 2014, showing the impact of the preferences of different groups on policy outcomes
Chart from Gilens & Page, showing the impact of the preferences of different groups on policy outcomes.

As Gilens and Page summarize their findings: “Economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

The mechanisms behind the outsized influence of elites are still not well known. Of course at Sunlight, we think lobbying and campaign finance are pretty important parts of this story. One way to think about the elite domination story is to consider the vectors of influence that elites have over policy makers. In our “1% of the 1% study,” we found that just 31,000 people contributed 28% of all the (traceable) money in the 2012 cycle. It’s a good guess that these folks have the ears of the politicians whose campaigns they fund. As Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., noted while speaking about raising money from big donors, “I talked a lot more about carried interest inside of that call room than I did in the supermarket.”

This is really important work, and provides empirical backing to how we have suspected politicians respond to conflicting policy preferences and pressures. This work suggests at least as many interesting research questions as it answers, and look forward to seeing where Gilens and Page take it.

[...]


Upcoming EU elections bringing undue influence into the spotlight again

A few days ago, a broader coalition of European civil society organizations launched a campaign to make some noise around the influence of big businesses on EU institutions. The timing seems perfect as the upcoming EU elections could create some more serious buy-in from candidates for an effective lobbyist registry. Fixing the current system — which is broken in so many ways — has been on the table for quite a while now, without any success.

PfP
Photo credit: Politics for People

So what’s the problem? As a new study shows, a vast majority of banks and financial lobby groups working to influence EU banking regulations are not registered within the EU’s volunteer lobbyist system, and other industries are notoriously opaque too. As a result, EU citizens have no idea how many laws that affect their lives directly have the fingerprints of lobbyists all over them – from climate to public health to data protection – or how their MEPs (Members of the European Parliament) are influenced by the agenda of big business.

The new Politics for People website – launched as the centerpiece of the broader civic campaign – provides an easy way for EU citizens to directly contact their MEPs through social media channels. People can urge their politicians running for re-election to sign a pledge, and support the interest of the broader public as opposed to the voice of those with money. The website also features case studies explaining how excessive industry lobbying impacts upon the daily lives of ordinary EU citizens, and how the “fire power” of big business can impede meaningful reform.

A lot of prominent MEPs have already signed the pledge, which is a truly encouraging sign. Two days ago, the European Parliament issued a resolution upon the European Commission (the executive body of the European Union) to prepare a legislative proposal for a mandatory register by 2016. It also asks the Commission to, in the meantime, introduce ambitious measures to encourage lobbyists to join the register — for instance, by limiting the number of meetings with unregistered lobbyists.

For our friends living across the pond: you can take action now!

[...]


Medellin’s Metamorphosis

“The turning point in our city’s history was the killing of Pablo Escobar,” said Alexander Velez, our guide during a tour of Medellin, organized by UN-Habitat during the World Urban Forum. Escobar, the most notorious drug dealer of the century, was estimated to be worth some $25 billion by the time he was killed by […] [...]


House retirees leaving $13 M on the table

The 25 House members who have announced plans to retire at the end of this year and who aren’t seeking higher office have money to burn. An analysis of campaign finance reports filed this week with the Federal Election Commission shows that the House… [...]


Today in #OpenGov 4/17/2014

Keep reading for today’s look at #OpenGov news, events and analysis including e-filing on tax day, anti-corruption in Armenia, and public officials’ public records.series-opengov-today

National News

  • A new study from CREW found that companies that voluntarily disclose their political spending don’t always do a particularly good job. (Roll Call)
  • Many Americans electronically file their taxes, but only 21 Senators electronically filed their campaign finance reports. Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) is pushing to require all Senators to e-file, which could save $500,000. (Public Integrity)
  • The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs updated its meetings database, making it easier to search through information about meetings with non-government officials. So far, the update only applies to recent meetings. (Center for Effective Government)
  • Dave Camp (R-MI), the retiring chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, could be looking at a plum spot on K Street if he decides to move across town after he leaves office. (The Hill)

International News

  • Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, himself not known as a paragon of good governance, lashed out at Nigeria for perceived corruption in that country recently. (Global Voices)
  • A growing government watchdog in Armenia is approaching its anti-corruption work with a variety of high and low tech tools. (Open Society Foundations)

State and Local News

  • Louisville is planning to add more than 90 new datasets to its website in the coming days and another 173 in the future. The moves comes after a report, requested by Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, found that the city has 414 datasets. (Louisville Courier-Journal)
  • Opinion: A recent court decision that exempted public business conducted on private devices from California Public Records Act lacks common sense. “When public officials conduct public business, their constituents get to watch, regardless of the platform.” (Los Angeles Times)

Events Today

Do you want to track transparency news? You can follow the progress of relevant bills on our Scout page. You can also get Today in #OpenGov sent directly to your preferred news reader!

[...]


Candidates vying to replace retiring House members raised big bucks in first quarter

Tom MacArthur, candidate for New Jersey's 3rd District House seat
New Jersey businessman Tom MacArthur raised the most money this quarter among House candidates, but a $2 million loan to his own campaign is what put him on top.

A handful of candidates angling to replace retiring members of the House from New Jersey, New York and California are at the top of the fundraising heap for this quarter, according to the Sunlight Foundation’s Real-Time FEC tool.

Although a scan of the top fundraisers for the first three months of 2014 reveals some of the usual suspects – like House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va. – the winner of the money race is Tom MacArthur, a former New Jersey insurance executive hoping to replace retiring Rep. Jon Runyan. Real-Time shows MacArthur, locked in a tight Republican primary with Steve Lonegan, came out on top because he loaned his campaign $2 million. Other than that, MacArthur received only one contribution: a $1,000 check from a bank executive in Randolph, New Jersey.

New York’s Kathleen Rice, running for retiring Democrat Rep. Carolyn McCarthy’s seat, brought in $1.47 million during the first quarter. The current Nassau County District Attorney received $10,000 from Off the Sidelines, fellow Democrat Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s leadership PAC, and $5,000 from abortion rights group EMILY’s List. Rice also received $4,000 from Nancy Pelosi for Congress and $2,000 from Friends of Carolyn McCarthy.

Three candidates vying for Democrat Rep. Henry Waxman’s 33rd District seat in southern California also brought in some big bucks this quarter. Real-Time data show Democrat David Kanuth raised $803,653 and bestselling self-help author (and collector of Hollywood endorsements) Marianne Williamson collected $697,842.38. Williamson loaned her campaign $60,000. And businessman James Graf raised a little more than $1 million, but Real-Time shows that just about all of it came from his own wallet.

A little further south, in San Diego County, Republican Fred Simon is running for the 52nd District seat, currently held by Democratic Rep. Scott Peters. Although Simon hauled in almost $970,000, Real-Time shows that $953,000 of that total is from Simon himself.

California’s so-called blanket primary system allows the top two vote-getters to advance to the general election, regardless of party affiliation, making the June 3 primary a huge deadline for each of these congressional candidates.

And back on the East Coast, Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., raised $737,379 during the first quarter. Shuster, who has represented the Keystone State’s 9th District since 2001 — after succeeding his father, former Rep. Bud Shuster — collected a large chunk of that total from PACs, including trade groups and unions. The chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Shuster received $5,000 from the BNSF Rail PAC and $2,500 from the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades PAC.

Here’s a list of the top fundraisers this quarter, and a complete list is available here.

[...]


Landscape Architecture in the News Highlights (April 1 – 15)

For more LA in the News, check out LAND, ASLA’s newsletter. If you see others you’d like included, please email us at info@asla.org. Designing Outdoor Spaces to Fit Specific Patient Populations – Healthcare Design Magazine, 4/1/14 “Patients using the garden could include a person awaiting minor surgery; someone recovering from a hip replacement who is […] [...]


Guns, gays, Hillary Clinton and Ben Carson: political fundraising reflects polarized USA

A Republican gay rights group is one of the super PACs that raised the most money during the first quarter of this year thanks to Republican financier Paul Singer. (Photo credit: Wikimedia) An anti-gun PAC, a GOP gay rights PAC and rival c… [...]


Today in #OpenGov 4/16/2014

Keep reading for today’s look at #OpenGov news, events and analysis including the importance of routine leaks, fighting lobbying secrecy in Europe, and building a culture around government data.series-opengov-today

National News

  • Plenty of super PACs like to spend their money on fancy lodgings and expensive meals. (Center for Public Integrity)
  • The National Technical Information Service charges for a wide array of government information that also happens to be freely available online and easy to find via Google search. Pressure from Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) recently got them to pull reports that he had written. (Washington Times)
  • A new article in Georgia Law Review makes the case that routine leaks to Congress, the press, and advocacy groups play an important role in oversight and presidential power. The author focused on leaks related to policy decisions, not criminal wrongdoing or waste. (Fierce Government)

International News

  • A new campaign has launched in Europe to push candidates for European Parliament to advocate for transparency and stand up to corporate lobbyists and secrecy. (Tech President)
  • The Transparency International chapter in the Dominican Republic has taken its fight against corruption to the streets. It is painting murals to advocate againset corruption. (Transparency International)

State and Local News

  • Civic data standards could be a vital step to bring clarity in the growing movement towards data drive governance, but there has yet to be a wildly successful implementation. (Data-Smart City Solutions)
  • Building a government data culture is one of the most important things that an open data policy can accomplish. (Civic.io)
  • The Missouri Ethics Commission ruled that public officials’ text messages about public business are a matter of public record. (Washington Times/AP)

Do you want to track transparency news? You can follow the progress of relevant bills on our Scout page. You can also get Today in #OpenGov sent directly to your preferred news reader!

[...]


Today in #OpenGov 4/16/2014

Keep reading for today’s look at #OpenGov news, events and analysis including the importance of routine leaks, fighting lobbying secrecy in Europe, and building a culture around government data.series-opengov-today

National News

  • Plenty of super PACs like to spend their money on fancy lodgings and expensive meals. (Center for Public Integrity)
  • The National Technical Information Service charges for a wide array of government information that also happens to be freely available online and easy to find via Google search. Pressure from Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) recently got them to pull reports that he had written. (Washington Times)
  • A new article in Georgia Law Review makes the case that routine leaks to Congress, the press, and advocacy groups play an important role in oversight and presidential power. The author focused on leaks related to policy decisions, not criminal wrongdoing or waste. (Fierce Government)

International News

  • A new campaign has launched in Europe to push candidates for European Parliament to advocate for transparency and stand up to corporate lobbyists and secrecy. (Tech President)
  • The Transparency International chapter in the Dominican Republic has taken its fight against corruption to the streets. It is painting murals to advocate againset corruption. (Transparency International)

State and Local News

  • Civic data standards could be a vital step to bring clarity in the growing movement towards data drive governance, but there has yet to be a wildly successful implementation. (Data-Smart City Solutions)
  • Building a government data culture is one of the most important things that an open data policy can accomplish. (Civic.io)
  • The Missouri Ethics Commission ruled that public officials’ text messages about public business are a matter of public record. (Washington Times/AP)

Do you want to track transparency news? You can follow the progress of relevant bills on our Scout page. You can also get Today in #OpenGov sent directly to your preferred news reader!

[...]