Misleading road ‘MAPlight’ from contributions to votes

MAPlight.org, a nonprofit organization, has launched a new feature called “Money Near Votes.” The tool, which mashes up campaign finance data with legislative votes, purports to show “the connection between money and politics” and highlight “the role special interests play in shaping public policy,” according to a press release.

The Center for Competitive Politics criticized the feature as “misleading” yesterday in a report on Marketplace, an American Public Media radio program on business issues.

MAPlight.org moves beyond merely providing objective information and overreaches by implying quid-pro-quo relationships and special interest influence without any credible evidence. The tool is lacking because of at least three significant omissions and zero context for the information, raising the question of whether the data was purposely clipped to play up a supposed connection between campaign contributions and votes.

First, there’s no mention of how often a lawmaker generally supports positions of certain industries or organizations — not just the bill featured. In the example featured in MAPlight.org’s press release, for instance, the “Money Near Votes” tool highlights donations from the Independent Community Bankers Of America and the American Bankers Association to Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), among others, near a vote on the Credit Cardholders’ Bill of Rights Act.

A more useful metric would be how often throughout his legislative career Rep. Frank or whoever has voted with the interests of the organizations. Is the vote an anomaly or part of a longstanding pattern? (MAPlight.org already tracks what organizations support which bills, so this seems possible.) Providing that data would probably undercut their causation inferences, though. (i.e. Do most Democrats vote with the interests of major labor unions — or Republicans with business groups — because unions contribute money right before certain bills or because Democrats are generally favorable to the issues unions support? I think most reasonable people would say the latter.)

Second, there’s no context regarding the relative size of the contributions. Let’s say donations from insurance and credit card industry employees and PACs represent 70 percent of a congressman’s contributions in an election cycle. Such data would provide more backing to an otherwise unfounded assertion that contributions impact votes than if a certain industry represented 1 percent of the congressman’s overall contributions. Again, though, this brings people down from the “reform” high that they’re uncovering something shady here.

Third, there’s no context about the number or substance of other bills during the time frame. It’s harder to establish a connection between an organization or an individual and a particular bill if there are several other bills on major issues in play during a particularly busy legislative session than to just highlight one bill and assume a connection. The data gathered shows interest groups with positions on a particular bill who contributed within 1-30 days of a vote on the bill, and the inference of a quid pro quo relationship either blatantly ignores the fact that Congress typically holds more than one vote every 14 days, or a gross ignorance of the political process.

Finally, apart from these criticisms, the example the press release features completely contradicts any suggestion that campaign contributions sway votes.

Every single contribution from an individual or organization within two-weeks before a bill affecting the credit card industry was from people and PACs that opposed the legislation. Yet, the bill passed 357-70. Total contributions to members of Congress who ended up voting for the bill were $194,529. The total for contributions to those who voted against the bill was $78,500.

One could quibble with these criticisms by saying that MAPlight.org is providing information, and it doesn’t need to provide every single data point to illuminate connections in money and politics. Perhaps not. But by claiming their tool “shows the connection between money and politics” while omitting crucial information, this data is borderline purposefully misleading.

As most of the empirical data and research studies show no causal link between campaign contributions and voting behavior, MAPlight.org has a high burden of proof to reach to suggest otherwise. Bottom line: Although, the MAPlight.org “Money Near Votes” tool is a different way of interpreting campaign finance data, it is at best useless and at worst misleading.