Sunday, August 09, 2009

Why and how health care is stalled

The Real Problem with The Senate's Small-State Bias
by Nate Silver
Five Thirty Eight: Politics Done Right

As you all surely know, the Senate is not a terribly
democratic institution. A voter in Wyoming -- population
533,000 -- has about 70 times more ability to influence
the Senate's direction than one in California --
population 36.8 million. And the lack of
representativeness can be particularly acute when the
Senate is conducting business at the committee level.
Max Baucus's Table for Six, for instance, which may very
well determine the fate of efforts to reform health
care, is made up of members who collectively represent
about 6.5 million people, or around one-fiftieth of the
country's population.

This in and of itself is problematic for Democrats,
since there is a correlation between the size of a state
and how Democratic it tends to vote in elections for
national office, although the relationship is not as
strong as you might posit (Rhode Island, Delaware and
Hawaii are small states too). The bigger and more
structural problem, however, may have to do with the
ways that small-state senators raise funds, and in turn,
whose interests they are beholden to.

The chart below details the 20 current senators who have
received the highest percentage of their campaign
contributions since 2003 from corporate PACs, based on
data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
This data focuses on corporate PAC contributions and
individual contributions only; other, usually minor
sources of income (self-financing, transfers from other
campaign committees, contributions from ideological and
labor PACs) are treated as ambiguous and are ignored.
Data should be current through roughly May of this year.

What do these senators have in common? All 20 come from
states with below-median populations. In fact, you have
to go to #26 (John McCain) to find a senator from a
state with an above-median population, and #30 (Saxby
Chambliss) to find one from a state with an above-
average population.

The reason this occurs is because individual
contributions are easier to obtain in states with larger
populations. Although some people make campaign
contributions to candidates from outside their states,
most do not, and so a senator from Texas ought to have
an easier time eliciting funds than one from Idaho. On
the other hand, there is no relationship between the
amount of PAC contributions and the population of a
senator's state; PACs know that one senator's vote is
just as good as another.

What this means is that senators from small states tend
to be relatively more dependant on special-interest
money -- it makes up a larger share of their overall
take. Senators from the ten smallest states have
received, on average, 28.4 percent of their campaign
funds from corporate PACs, versus 13.7 for those in the
ten largest. There is a tendency to think of senators
from small states as being populists, and there are a
few instances in which this is accurate -- Jon Tester of
Montana and John Thune of South Dakota, for instance,
are relatively non-dependant on PAC money. But for the
most part, something the opposite is true, and senators
from small states in fact have more incentive to placate
special interests.

It is worth noting, by the way, that the six senators on
Baucus's mini-committee are especially egregious in this
regard. They rank #1 (Mike Enzi), #6 (Chuck Grassley),
#11 (Kent Conrad), #13 (Baucus), #14 (Jeff Bingaman) and
#20 (Olympia Snowe) in the share of contributions
received from corporate PACs (an average of 47.5 percent
of their funds overall).

One can think of several plausible reforms to redress
this imbalance. For instance, corporations might be
restricted from donating PAC money to a senator unless
they do a material amount of business in her state. In
addition, the proliferation of the Internet as a
fundraising tool has probably leveled the playing field
some, making it easier for populist-ish candidates like
Tester or Jim Webb to receive contributions from
activists all over the country.

This goes a long way toward explaining, however, why the
Senate tends to be more protective than the House of
corporate interests -- be they in the form of bank
bailouts, tax breaks, or whatever else (consider, for
instance, that H.R. 1424 -- the second take on the bank
bailout -- was approved with the votes of 74 percent of
the Senate but just 60 percent of the House). We don't
need vague notions about the "cultural" differences
between the two chambers to explain this -- they have
mostly to do with where the money is flowing in from.

A complete list of the source of campaign funds for all
100 senators follows below.

-- Ira Cohen
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