The perils of following the money

Okay, that’s a bit extreme, but not as much as you may think. Money in politics stories are always big around election time, and for obvious reasons — mostly, that it’s disturbing and infuriating to think that elected officials vote on the basis of which interest group donates the most money to their campaign coffers.

I’ve written enough campaign contribution stories in my career (this one and this one are some of the more recent, and simplistic) to know that matters are rarely that simple, however. A good case in point is this California Watch story (which magnamimously quotes from this recent CalWatchdog post) on state Senator Lou Correa‘s voting against SB 810, the single-payer health care bill.

The California Watch story, based on this new MAPLight analysis of how much health insurance company money taken by the senators who voted on SB 810, focuses on Correa, who voted no while accepting $56,782.16, a dollar amount “2.5 times as much as the average Senate Democrat.”

This is an important detail and well worth a story. But the numbers provided by MAPLight suggest other, far more interesting angles. One is that the top two health insurance money recipients are both Democrats — Leland Yee and Gloria Negrete McLeod, who accepted $79,991.71 and $74694.78, respectively. Both of them voted for SB 810. Now if we’re to believe that Correa voted against SB 810 to curry favor with his health insurance company benefactors, how then do we explain the votes of Yee and McLeod, who took far more money from insurance companies?

The whole issue gets murkier when you add up the campaign contributions. According to the chart compiled by MAPLight (and my math skills, which are open to some debate), the senators who voted against SB 810 accepted $610,859.90 while those who voted for it took in $488,063.90. This isn’t merely a case where the insurance companies backed the wrong race horse — they backed all the horses, in nearly equal terms. They did this, of course, because the Senate takes up a lot more health related legislation than simple SB 810.

There’s no doubt that money is a factor in American elected politics. How much of factor, though, is open to debate.

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