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A GOP Congressman’s story shows us how money in politics really works

$4,500 in cold, hard cash. Much more than Rep. McAllister expected to get.
$4,500 in cold, hard cash. Much more than Rep. McAllister expected to get.
Ryan Shea / Flickr
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

First-term Rep. Vance McAllister (R-LA) has had a rough couple of months. He was caught on camera kissing a married member of his staff, and subsequently decided not to run for reelection. Now, at a Louisiana event last Thursday, McAllister has caused controversy by saying he expected to receive a donation in return for voting a certain way. "McAllister admits to casting vote for money," writes Political Wire.

But the Congressman's full comments, reported by the Ouachita Citizen, tell a more complicated story — one that provides more insight into how money influences Capitol Hill. McAllister said he was discussing a certain bill with a colleague on the House floor, and had the following exchange:

"I played dumb and asked him, ‘How would you vote?'" McAllister said. "He told me, ‘Vote no and you will get a $1,200 check from the Heritage Foundation. If you vote yes, you will get a $1,000 check from some environmental impact group.' ... I said, ‘Are you serious?' and he told me, ‘Yeah, wait and see,'" McAllister said.

The specifics of McAllister's story seem to be false. Neither the Heritage Foundation nor its political arm, Heritage Action, donates to candidates. Perhaps McAllister or his unnamed colleague confused Heritage with another conservative outside group. (McAllister later told a Louisiana newspaper that he wasn't referring to Heritage at all.)

However garbled the story is, there are a few interesting aspects to it. First of all, McAllister says he's told that he'll get a donation no matter how he votes on the bill — he's merely deciding which team of organized interests to side with. Second, no one promises McAllister a donation in return for a vote (indeed, the groups mentioned have no contact with him at all) — McAllister merely has to hope somebody will pony up eventually. Third, members of Congress are frequently unsure about which of the many votes they cast truly matter most to the various moneyed interests out there — so they often base their political analyses on theories rather than facts, as McAllister does.

Finally, in the end, McAllister doesn't even get the donation he expects — because one vote wasn't enough to overshadow his overall record:

"I voted no, and I didn't get a Heritage Foundation check but he did," McAllister said. "I went back and checked with my friend, ‘I didn't get a check, man. What were you talking about?' He told me, ‘Well, I got one. Why didn't you?'"

McAllister said he was not surprised he did not receive a contribution from Heritage Foundation since the group and Gov. Bobby Jindal were "upset with me"

Again, since Heritage doesn't donate to politicians, this recounting is almost certainly inaccurate. Still, McAllister's takeaway here, however confused, is sound. One mere vote usually doesn't get a politician money. Instead, donors and interest groups put that vote into context with many other votes they care about. If, over time, the politician demonstrates that he's a reliable ally — or at least better than any of his potential opponents — he'll get support. And campaign cash.

Update: This article has been updated to clarify that Heritage Action does not donate to candidates, and include more recent remarks from McAllister denying that he was talking about Heritage at all.

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