• Kyle Vertin

How Politicians Become Corrupt Without Realizing It

Campaign finance reform is not a platform often discussed during political elections or on broadcast news programs, but according to a New York Times/CBS News poll, nearly 90 percent of Americans support some type of reform. If you ask any Washington insider, the notion that a monetary donation to a politician has any impact on their policy decisions is met with resistance and quickly denounced. This is, in part, because many politicians do not intentionally pass legislation that benefits their donors; however, donor money is shown to have some impact on a politician’s policy position.

America was founded under a system that allowed citizens the opportunity to become elected representatives of fellow Americans and pass laws that enrich people’s lives. For a long time, those laws were directly correlated to what the majority of citizens wanted. A study published in Perspectives on Politics indicates that is no longer the case. The study used a database showing 1,779 policy positions of voters and interest groups between 1981 and 2002 to discern whether or not citizens’ opinions reflect American law. The following chart illustrates the result.

The y-axis displays the likelihood of any policy to be adopted in Congress. On the left chart, the x-axis shows the total percentage of average citizens who favor a policy position. On the right, the x-axis shows the total percentage of donors who favor a policy position. Ideally, the graph would show that any policy with 50 percent of citizen support should have about a 50 percent chance of passing. The left chart actually demonstrates that no matter how much average citizens evince their support for a policy, it has roughly a 30 percent chance of passing. The chart on the right indicates that the more support a policy receives from the economic elites, the higher the probability it has of passing.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of politicians that know exactly where their bread is buttered, but sometimes there is no malicious intent by political officials to pass bills at the behest of their donors. Politicians don’t think that they are going to accept $20,000 from a super PAC and then do what they ask. Donors often times just want to get a politician’s ear. Now, how many times does a politician fundraise per week? Former Representative Steve Israel (D-NY3) has stated that representatives would previously need to fundraise for one or two hours a day, but after the Citizens United ruling in 2010, they are now required to fundraise for around four hours per day. If a congressperson spends a majority of their time listening to issues from individuals in the millionaire class, they are going to hear some more divergent problems than they would if they were speaking to a working-class American.

The study in Perspectives on Politics analyzed data up until 2002, but the problems regarding donor contributions have only rapidly increased in recent races. Election cycle spending has skyrocketed since Citizens United according to Opensecrets.

The most important point to understand is that many politicians aren’t particularly motivated to raise money to personally enrich themselves. They are motivated to raise money because they want to retain their power. It’s understood that more money equals more votes. In the 2016 congressional races, 94 percent of Senate seats and 96 percent of House seats went to the candidates with bigger budgets. They equate money and power.

Let’s take a look at a similar influence. The Los Angeles Times conducted several investigations into the nation’s opioid epidemic, and a key concern included the amount of influence that pharmaceutical companies had on the drugs doctors prescribed. Purdue Pharma would send doctors to lavish conferences in Las Vegas, San Francisco, Orlando, New York and all over the world where they are told to get over their “opiophobia” and prescribe more of their drugs. Purdue “found that doctors who attended seminars in 1996 wrote more than twice as many prescriptions as those who didn’t, according to a company analysis.” Doctors should be fully aware of the negative impact that opioids have on consumers, such as physical dependence, but they push twice as many drugs after their conference indulgence. With the United States increasing their regulation on opioids in recent years, Purdue has been pushing its operations globally. To reiterate, the doctors don’t write more prescriptions because they were told to do so. Because they mentally associate Purdue’s drugs more with patients’ expressed pain, they distribute more of it.

The current system of campaign finance in the United States has only opened the door to more influence with record-breaking spending in the 2016 elections. Independent mega-donors can at least hide in the guise of public interest when making donations, but corporate donations clearly indicate that they opt for candidates that have their best interests at heart. If you have any doubts about that, think about it this way. Why would amoral corporate machines with a fiduciary duty to maximize company profits contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars to politicians without expecting a return on their investment?

There are diverse ideas throughout the political spectrum on how to remedy the issue of money in politics, from limiting personal donations and eliminating the use of dark money to publicly financing campaigns. I’m not here to tell you the answer. I’m here to help you understand the problem. As long as we allow the opportunity for the millionaire class and private entities to provide an overwhelming majority of political finances to our politicians, we will always leave the door open to undue influence and corruption.


Balcerzak, Ashley. "Where the Money Came From, Not How Much, Mattered in the Presidential Race." OpenSecrets Blog., 09 Nov. 2016. Web.

Gilens, Martin; Page, Benjamin I. "Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups and Average Citizens,” Perspectives on Politics, September 2014, Vol. 12, Issue 3, 564-581

"Nearly 90 Percent of Americans Want Major Campaign Finance Reforms Enacted." RT International., 2 June 2015. Web.

O'Donnell, Norah. "Are Members of Congress Becoming Telemarketers?" CBS News. CBS Interactive, 24 Apr. 2016. Web.

Ryan, Harriet, Lisa Girion, and Scott Glover. "OxyContin Goes Global — “We’re Only Just Getting Started”." Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 18 Dec. 2016. Web.

"The Center for Responsive Politics." Opensecrets RSS., Web. <https://www.opensecrets.org/outsidespending/cycle_tots.php>.