How Campaign Contributions and Lobbying Can Lead to Inefficient Economic Policy

Source: John Craig and David Madland, Center for American Progress, May 2, 2014

From the summary:
The U.S. Supreme Court struck down two campaign finance provisions in the past few years that limited independent political expenditures by corporations and other organizations and placed aggregate limits on individual donations. The Court found that the provisions infringe on the right of free speech and that the aggregate limits do not prevent a narrowly defined version of corruption. Since then, federal courts have begun overturning state lobbying regulations under the logic used by the Supreme Court. While there is considerable disagreement about whether the Court was correct in finding that those campaign finance rules failed to prevent corruption, imposing limits on campaign financing and lobbying may be justified for another reason—promoting productive economic activity.

The primary way that campaign contributions and lobbying may dampen economic growth is via a practice known as rent-seeking—the process of seeking income through special government favors rather than through productive economic activity. When firms and individuals engage in rent-seeking behavior, it has several negative effects on economic growth. Not only do people spend more time and money trying to get a bigger piece of the economic pie for themselves rather than trying to enlarge the pie, but the policies they seek are often wasteful, inefficient, or even harmful. If rent-seeking is a successful strategy for businesses or individuals, it can impose great harm on society by slowing or even stopping economic growth…..

While it is impossible to quantify the economic harm done by rent-seeking to the American economy, this issue brief reviews the literature and finds that the harm is likely quite significant. …

Even worse, research indicates that campaign contributions and lobbying often help shape policy outcomes, which suggests that rent-seeking efforts are often successful. While disagreement exists about how much influence campaign contributions and lobbying have, money in politics seems to be most effective in shaping the outcomes of issues that are less visible and less ideological, exactly the type of special favors one would expect rent-seeking to target. Furthermore, there have been several findings that show a clear relationship between specific instances of lobbying or campaign contributions and government favors. To take just a few examples:
– One study found that increasing lobbying reduces a corporation’s effective tax rate, with an increase of 1 percent in lobbying expenditures expected to reduce a corporation’s next-year tax rate between 0.5 percentage points and 1.6 percentage points.
– Another study based on data from 48 different states found that a $1 corporate campaign contribution is worth $6.65 in lower state corporate taxes.
– Finally, federal contracts were more likely to be awarded to firms that have given federal campaigns higher contributions, even after controlling for previous contract awards…..