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Shocked by money for access? Washington lives off it.

Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

Washington, DC, is suffering a severe shortage of smelling salts this morning as news broke suggesting a correlation between financial contributions and gaining access to a political figure. In this case, the contributions were to the Clinton Foundation and the politician is Hillary Clinton, so this is being cast as a violation of the norms of our nation's capital.

If only there were prior political science research testing whether contributors were more likely to gain access to political figures...

Actually, there has been a mountain of evidence that this is common practice, as you can see in my all-too-brief list of citations. The most recent of these works is a field experiment in which an interest group solicited meetings with congressional offices and revealed to some of these offices that potential donors would be at the meeting.

The "potential donors" were more likely to be scheduled for meetings and were more likely to meet with members of Congress or top staffers than average citizens making the same request (summaries herehere, and here).

Of course, the link between money and access is no surprise to the seasoned Washingtonian. It plays out over breakfast, lunch, cocktails, and dinner at restaurants and venues across town, and at sad call centers where telemarketers wonder why they ever ran for Congress. And the other major presidential candidate is an avowed participant in the pay-to-say-hi game. What's really shocking is the feigned shock.

Ending the influence game

Let's assume that the politicians expressing shock and outrage are sincere, and that they wish to hold themselves to the same standards as Clinton. I would expect to see Congress enact these reforms:

  1. Full publicity of all donations to political organizations (including Super PACs, 527s, etc.) and to any charitable organization with which a politician is affiliated.
  2. Full publicity of all meetings by members of Congress and their staff, including phone calls, texts, and emails. Also, full publicity of all meeting requests, so one could analyze why some requests are granted and others denied.

Of course, this could lead to a great deal of shock at the apparent correlations between No. 1 and No. 2 for any number of legislators. Better stock up on smelling salts.