Who Bankrolls Congress?

By Josh Israel and Aaron Mehta 

California Assembly Speaker Jesse M. Unruh once famously said of moneyed political interests: “If you can’t take their money, drink their booze, eat their food, screw their women, and vote against them, you don’t belong here.” In other words, giving cash to politicians is no guarantee they’ll carry your water. But campaign contributions to elected officials don’t hurt either. The links between money and votes is an endlessly debated subject in official Washington. Cynics say campaign cash often buys support. Others claim that examining who opened their wallets most for a politician is simply an indication of who those backers think best advocates their agenda. Either way, though, following the money is often illuminating.

As the 2010 midterm elections approach, the Center for Public Integrity sought to determine who bankrolls Washington’s most powerful lawmakers and why — not just recently, but over the entire course of their federal careers. We looked hard at the big money behind the four top congressional leaders: Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, House Minority Leader John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Through analysis of three decades worth of CQ MoneyLine records on contributions to all of their campaign committees and leadership PACs, we calculated the ten top PAC donors and five top individual contributors to each of the leadership quartet. Where companies and associations had merged, we combined all PACs affiliated with parts of the current entities. We combed through lobbying disclosure forms, press releases, news stories, and voting records to see whether the legislators vigorously backed the agendas of their top patrons. The answer: a definite yes.

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