Going Beyond the Obvious

Alright everyone, pack up and go home! We don’t need to worry about campaign donations influencing legislators anymore, not after an opinion article in the Online Athens Banner-Herald by Walter Jones claimed that there’s not really much of a connection between the number/type of bills that pass and how much a particular industry spends. Let’s look at his numbers though, the two largest industry contributors (according to the Common Cause Georgia’s partner website Follow the Money) were healthcare and lawyers and lobbyists. Jones points out in his article that while not a lot of bills passed that could really be connected to those industries, social service-type bills, which did not have a lot of money involved, passed at a higher rate. In other words, money doesn’t actually seem to have a lot of influence on what sort of bills pass.

If only. It might put me out of a job but it would also solve a lot of problems. No, while it may seem on the surface like there’s not that big of a correlation between money and bills being passed, there’s a lot more at work here.

Some of the issues Jones points out himself. For example: what’s good for one company may be bad for another (in the same or another industry) and can lead to a lot of spending that can skew the numbers. Some issues have been pointed out by commenters on the article, such as the fact that you have to look at not just the number of bills that pass but how much benefit is gained from those bills or that it’s not uncommon to spend money to try and stop bills from being passed.

But there’s also the fact that one of the largest categories of contributors is lobbyists and lawyers. Now, to be fair I haven’t had a full look at either Follow the Money’s data or methodology, but from what I’ve seen by looking at individual contributors, lobbyist gifts and contributions aren’t categorized under whatever they’re lobbying for. Instead, they’re just placed under lobbying. That can skew the numbers big time.

So let’s say that a business pays a lobbyist to get legislators to vote favorably on legislation. Anything that lobbyist spends isn’t going to be categorized in whatever industry the business is in—healthcare, energy, agriculture, whatever—but instead just be put down as lobbying.

Having these numbers to look at is great, and Follow the Money does a great job. But when you’re analyzing them and trying to figure what they might mean, you have to look beyond the obvious. Transparency is great, but in and of itself it doesn’t always give us the information that we as voters need to make informed decisions, nor does it always work to reign in unethical behavior. That’s why we can’t actually pack up and go home yet (and why I still get to keep my job). We’ve still got to keep working and get ethics reform like lobbyist limits passed so that transparency isn’t being asked to do more than it can handle.

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