The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Saturday, March 12, 2005

FDR and campaign contributions: another country

There is a natural assumption these days that, when a bill is passed by Congress to provide a nice juicy slice of corporate welfare to a particular sector - the bankruptcy bill S 256 being the current example - the corruption (usually perfectly legal) of campaign contributions has done its work.

(Usually, obscenely frugally - it seems [1], the value of the benefits exceed the amount of the contributions by 1000:1, at least.)

But things were very different in the time of Franklin Roosevelt: votes were acquired via machines of various kinds - many criminal, some not; with the help of Federal aid programmes (such as the WPA): and, latterly, through industrial unions.

Business, however, seems not to have been as significant a source as one might expect. There is a book on the subject, New Deal Fat Cats: Business, Labor, and Campaign Finance in the 1936 Presidential Election by Michael Webber, of which I have only read this review:
Perhaps the most interesting statement in Webber's book is found at the end of the first chapter. "One of the most striking findings in the analysis of each business sector is how small a percentage of business people gave money to either party" (p. 15). Attempts to influence politicians with campaign contributions were not present until the federal government began to exert its influence in the private marketplace...

Now, the New Deal was notable for favouring cartelising markets, limiting production to raise prices; businesses favoured by this approach one might expect to find expressing their gratitude by crossing FDR's (and other pols') hands with silver.

But not so, apparently. Or, at least, not as much as present practice would lead one to suppose.

The review continues:
Today's debate regarding campaign finance reform can perhaps trace its origins to the New Deal. Webber's book supports this argument and suggests that big government -- a government that selects winners and losers by enacting certain policies -- came first, then large contributions from interest groups followed.

Strangely, this is not an argument I've heard made by Dem commenatators!

(There is an archive - dead-tree only - available at UC Berkeley, the Overacker-Heard Campaign Finance Data Archive, which has
66 boxes of index cards which contain lists of individual contributors to presidential campaigns and party committees from 1904 to 1952. The cards formed the data bases for Louise Overacker's Money in Elections (1932), her accounts of financing the 1936, 1940 and 1944 presidential elections and Alexander Heard's The Costs of Democracy (1960).

So close and yet so far.)

  1. I've not seen a study that does the math. But there was certainly a vast discrepancy between contributions and benefits in the case of the 2003 Medicare bill. And I've seen quoted that the benefit to business from S256 is around $1 billion a year.

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