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Drawing the line between contributions and bribes

Nancy Marshall-Genzer Mar 9, 2015
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Drawing the line between contributions and bribes

Nancy Marshall-Genzer Mar 9, 2015
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Members of Congress give campaign donors special access, at least according to what Berkeley Ph.D. student Josh Kalla found in a 2013 study.

“We went into the study trying to see, does money lead to unequal political outcomes?” Kalla says.

Kalla sent emails to almost 200 members of Congress, from real constituents, requesting a meeting. Half were identified as donors, and they were much more likely to get a meeting.

“Yeah, it was about a three-fold increase, I believe,” he says.

Next, Kalla wants to study whether political contributions actually influence legislation. When it comes to a bribery investigation, a number of factors are considered.

“I think timing can be a factor,” says Richard Briffault, a professor of legislation at Columbia Law School.

As in, did a member of Congress get a political donation right before or after voting on a bill? Was there a quid pro quo?

“There have been undercover deals, outright handshakes,” Briffault says.”Sometimes it’s provable, but in other situations it’s a lot grayer.”

Donors know how to exploit the gray areas. Larry Noblenow senior counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, once worked as a private attorney advising clients on how to make legal political donations.

“When you’re making a political contribution, never discuss an issue,” he says. “What that means as a practical matter is the contribution is made, and then the lobbying takes place the next day.”

Then, according to Noble, the lobbyist can simply say the conversation was an exercise of free speech.

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