Is There Too Much Money in Politics?
84% of Americans say “yes,” according to a 2015 New York Times / CBS poll. A clear majority of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents all agreed that money has too much influence on the outcome of elections.
On the surface, the numbers seem to suggest they’re right. After all, the media constantly complain about the outsized impact of money in politics. A quick google search of the question, “Is there too much money in politics?” returns 95,000,000 results, most of which feature a political commentator lamenting the role of campaign cash in American elections.
Even this site, Transparency Texas, features a running ticker displaying current campaign spending in Texas. As these “spending clocks” spin up to register the latest totals, the numbers can be staggering.
For example, in the last election cycle (2015 – 2016) Texans donated $350,806,483.69 to Texas candidates and PACs. For the 2018 elections, which are still a year away, nearly 79 million dollars have already flowed from Texans’ hands to their preferred politicians and PACs. Those are certainly enormous sums of money.
But the popular political narrative isn’t always right. Here’s what you need to know:
Context, Context, Context.
Numbers are meaningless without context. During the 2015 – 2016 election cycle:
- Contributions to Texas candidates and PACs totaled 350.8 million.
- Texas government spending was 246.6 billion ($119.3 billion for fiscal year 2015 and $127.3 for fiscal year 2016). This means Texas campaign contributions were approximately 0.0014 % (one one-thousandth of one percent) compared to the amount of money spent by the Texas legislature during the same time.
- Texas Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was 3.228 trillion. (1.611 trillion in 2015 and 1.617 trillion in 2016). This means campaign spending was approximately 0.0001% (one ten-thousandth of one percent) compared to the Texas GDP.
Before your calculator or your brain explodes, let’s put it simply:
The amount of money Texans spent to influence how politicians doled out their tax dollars was minuscule in comparison to those tax dollars.
The amount of money Texans spent to influence how politicians doled out their tax dollars was infinitesimal in comparison to the amount of money those same Texans produced.
Minuscule. Infinitesimal. It’s hard to come up with words to adequately describe how dwarfed Texans’ political giving is compared to the amount of money Austin spends or the amount of money Texans produce.
Political spending is political speech.
For most citizens, other than voting, making a political donation is the easiest, and often only way to be involved politically. It’s their primary means of political speech. Most citizens don’t have the time or inclination to be involved politically other than to vote and possibly donate to a candidate or a PAC they believe will represent their interests in Austin.
The numbers aren’t the whole story.
Austin politicians and unelected agency bureaucrats issue regulations which cost citizens money not reflected in the annual budget. It’s hard to get exact figures, but Chuck DeVore of the Texas Public Policy Foundation estimates that government regulations cost Texans hundreds of millions of dollars each year.
Similarly, there is a great deal of political speech not reflected in the reported campaign spending, and most of it advocates for increasing government spending and taxpayer burdens. For example, elected officials, representatives of government agencies, university officials, and others with public platforms frequently argue for increased government spending.
The most obvious and egregious example of political speech not reflected in the campaign contributions is media commentary. Every time a media personality comments on a candidate, it’s like free advertising for that candidate or her opponent. It’s appalling hypocrisy for a political commentator who has a public platform to argue the political speech of the average citizen should be limited.
For citizens who don’t have a public platform, donating to a campaign with like values may literally be their only way to “speak back” to the media or others with a public platform who are trying to increase their tax burden and take more of their money.
The bottom line.
For most citizens, voting and political giving are the most effective ways to hold their government officials accountable, to exercise their first amendment rights to free speech, to minimize their tax burden, and to influence how tax dollars are being spent. Just as we spend on the military and police to protect us from international and domestic threats, money spent to influence elections may rightly be seen as protection against tyranny from our own government. Maybe all the money Texans spend in campaign contributions is a good deal after all.
Our How It Works series pulls back the curtain on the inter-workings of state government by identifying who’s involved, defining what they do, and explaining the motivations behind their actions.