“Wall Street, trade groups—and corporations in general—tend to give to incumbents of both parties, because they want access,” Spangler wrote in an email. He added that chairs of committees, regardless of party, “tend to get more because they wield more power, not necessarily because they’re beholden to these special interests but because these special interests at least want to their sides of the stories heard.”
This is a good point about how parties slide incumbents into favorable positions, and a useful reminder that taking an industry’s money doesn’t mean a politician is carrying their water—at least not on every issue. After all, votes are votes: Stabenow did oppose the bank bailouts, while Hoekstra voted for them as a member of the House, and she’s hardly hidden from that position even as she has become a beneficiary of Wall Street. (We’re setting aside for now the important question of whether TARP was good for the public.)
Still, the apparent tension here between Stabenow’s rhetoric and record on the one hand, and her fund-raising on the other, is worth flagging for readers as an illustration of how influence is maintained in Washington. It also merits some further scrutiny: What’s Stabenow’s record on some lower-profile issues that matter to the financial industry? And looking forward, what are some issues on which she wields influence, and about which the industry might be eager to have its side of the story heard? A place to start exploring might be the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which is overseen by the agriculture committee.
In Hoekstra’s case, meanwhile, is there anything in his record that—in the eyes of Wall Street—cuts against his support of the bailout?
When I spoke with Pluta, he pointed to the barriers to tracking the flow of political money. “Campaign finance laws are really, really inadequate,” he said. “The final phase of spending [before an election], when people really dump money into it—we don’t find out [the data] until after the election.” The emergence of super PACs, he said, enormously complicates the work.
Pluta means to navigate the challenge by focusing his reporting on the long legislative records of both Stabenow and Hoekstra. “One of the things Hoekstra is going to have to explain is his vote on the Wall Street bailouts, especially vis-a-vis his vote on the auto bailouts,” he said. (Hoekstra, like Stabenow, supported the federal loans to the auto industry, though he has since criticized their implementation.)
The point about the lack of campaign finance transparency is well taken, and a focus on the candidates’ records is on the mark. But there is readily available information on political money, like the Open Secrets numbers, that can enrich an investigation of those records—and that hasn’t consistently gotten the attention it deserves from political journalists. Even if there’s often not a direct line between a donation and a vote, the origin of political money offers some hints about whose interests a politician may be listening to, whose calls might get returned, and which points interest groups have decided to focus on. And that, in turn, informs what questions voters—and reporters—should be asking candidates now.