The Seven Deadly
Myths of Trans­parency

We investigate each of the principal myths used to support congressional transparency (many of which apply equally well to government transparency more generally). In each case we find an astonishing lack of supporting evidence and a number of troubling, flawed assumptions.

Rough Draft By D’Angelo, King, Ranalli – Harvard Kennedy School

The Seven Deadly Myths of Trans­parency

The Seven Deadly Myths of Transparency

We investigate each of the principal myths used to support congressional transparency (many of which apply equally well to government transparency more generally). In each case we find an astonishing lack of supporting evidence and a number of troubling, flawed assumptions.

By D’Angelo, King, Ranalli


Seven Deadly Myths

We investigate each of the myths, discuss the reality and make a claim based on the evidence.


The Myths

The idea that more transparency in government is always an unalloyed good is a dangerous populist illusion.
– Fukuyama 2015 - The Limits of Transparency

Below, In the menu on the left, we list the seven principal myths used to support the notion that legislative transparency improves democracy. Clicking through will bring up a discussion of each of these myths showing, in each case, how they work in reality. And in each case, we make a claim based on the evidence that runs contrary to the myth.

Myth One {{TransVar>1 ? ' - Actuality' : ''}}

{{TransVar>1 ? 'Transparency Serves Special Interests' : 'Transparency Serves The People'}}

Summary The Reality We Claim
Practically nobody any longer questions the wisdom in Brandeis’s famous remark that “sunlight is the best of disinfectants”...How could anyone be against transparency? Its virtues and its utilities seem so crushingly obvious.
– Lessig 2009 - New Republic

From scholars, to members of Congress, to human rights organizations, the clarion call for improved democracy relies on increased amounts of government transparency. On their website, USAID reiterates this notion boldly: “The process of governing is most legitimate when it incorporates democratic principles such as transparency...and accountability.”

The logic seems unassailable: increased transparency enables precise interaction between government and the people, and the more information that is delivered to constituents the better voters will be able to monitor and engage in the legislative process. Celebrated scholars like Martin Gilens, Archon Fung and Paul Pierson are staunch proponents. They view government transparency as a resource targeted and delivered exclusively to benefit ‘self-governing citizens.’

The Reality
It must be recognized that there is no way to open up the legislative process to the people without also opening it up to lobbyists and interest groups.
– Joseph Bessette 1994 - Mild Voice of Reason

Government transparency cannot be targeted exclusively at constituents. Like a grenade blast, public information explodes in all directions, shooting downward (toward the people), outward (toward foreign and special interests) and upward (toward the wealthy and the powerful). Therefore increased transparency benefits, as scholar Rudder suggests (1977), anyone who is interested.

As such, open government initiatives provide insider-trading-style-access to the the very groups that they are intended to check – corporate lobbyists, powerful political actors (i.e. the President), foreign entities, special interests etc. Indeed, these non-constituent actors have traditionally been the most extreme demanders and consumers of open government data, far outpacing constitutents, who rarely monitor Congress at all. Further, as we see in myth 2, these powerful groups are also far more able to hold members accountable based on this insider information.

Constituents No, Lobbyists Yes

The problem is, of course, is that if Americans aren’t paying attention, they can’t hold anybody accountable...If we use statistics on what the people don’t know...the statistics are just appalling.
– Shenkman 2008 - CNN

Unlike corporate lobbyists, constituents are disinterested and inefficient consumers of government transparency. And study after study and scholar after scholar confirm that the vast majority of citizens do not access congressional records at all. This leaves us with a situation where corporate interests are not only the most voracious consumers of government information, with the most power to hold members accountable, but they are also the main participants of open markup sessions, hearings and debates. This dynamic is described precisely in this quote:

Even if voters were smothered with “costless” information, it is doubtful that they would pay attention and process detailed information about the complexities of public policy they do not care much about. In contrast, special interests are “naturally” better informed; compared to the general public, they get costless information as a by-product of their specialized activities, and they have stronger incentives to invest in costly information gathering, to pay costly attention to complex information, and to invest in costly expertise that allows them to understand such information.
– Lohmann 1998 - Rationale For Special Interests

This notion, however, is hardly theoretical. In virtually every committee, one can readily see the difference between the flood of lobbyists and absent constituents. A difference that is stark especially in committees energy, health care or taxation (as seen in the following quote).

Lobbyists…lined up early each morning to get seats at the tax-writing markups. At Ways and Means…some eager committee-watchers would arrive as early as 5:30am to get at the head of the queue and have a chance for a front-row seat. The line sometimes stretched the entire length of the hallway, a city block long, and then wrapped around the corner. There were so many people that it looked like the committee was giving something away – which, at times, it was. The lines were immense each day, no matter what subject the committee was discussing. Representative Pete Stark, Democrat of California, devised a formula to explain the phenomenon, which was equally pronounced in both the Senate and the House: “The fewer the number of taxpayers affected, and the more dull and arcane the subject, the longer the line of lobbyists.”
– Murry & Birmbaum 1988 - Showdown at Gucci Gulch

Thus, even under a regime of ideal transparency, we find that constituents are not willing or capable of paying attention, resulting a tragic scenario whereby congressional transparency delivers important information/access, on the vast majority of legislation almost exclusively to the benefit of the lobbyists, as seen in this quote:

If nobody else cares about it very much, the special interest will get its way. If the public understands the issue at any level, then special interest groups are not able to buy an outcome that the public may not want. But the fact is that the public doesn’t focus on most of the work of the Congress. Most of the work of the Congress is very small things... And all of us, me included, are guilty of this: If the company or interest group is (a) supportive of you, (b) vitally concerned about an issue that, (c) nobody else in your district knows about or ever will know about, then the political calculus is quite simple.
– Rep. Vin Weber (R-Min) 1995 - Speaking Freely (Schram)

Note: Before the 1970 Legislative Reorganization Act, no one, but a member of Congress, was allowed into the committee markups. The lobbyists, ironically, were relegated to the lobby. And, as a result of this limited access there were very few lobbyists in Washington. This means that when the doors to Congress are shut, the number of lobbyists dips to near zero, and the ability for powerful groups to pressure legislatures drops as well, thus making the process less accountable, but vastly more democratic.

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We Claim >

Powerful special interests are the principal consumers, demanders and beneficiaries of congressional transparency. These interests include the wealthy, foreign entities and powerful political insiders like the President or the Speaker of the House. And these groups far outpace constituents when it comes to accessing and employing government data.

Myth Two {{TransVar>1 ? ' - Actuality' : ''}}

{{TransVar>1 ? 'Accountability Benefits the Powerful' : 'Accountability Benefits Constituents'}}

Summary The Reality We Claim
But as the town hall conversation got chippy — and activists brought up points of disagreement with the senator — Manchin exclaimed, “What you ought to do is vote me out. Vote me out!”
– Debenedetti 2017 - Politico

It is generally understood that if voters do not approve of their representative’s behaviour, they can ‘kick the bum out’ in the next election. This notion of accountability is based on electoral rewards and punishments, and it relies on the ability of the voter to monitor their representative.

Thus, it is assumed that by increasing the amount of information that the voter receives, the more finely tuned is the level of accountability. Therefore calls for increased transparency and accountability often go hand in hand. And the notion is that, by increasing transparency, the representative is suddenly more wary of, responsive to and, therefore, more accountable to the voter.

The Reality
By far the most common assumption is that transparent, accessible information will generate...accountable state behaviour – an assumption that in fact glosses over a number of leaps.
– McGee & Gaventa 2011 - Assessing Impact of Accountability

A ccountability is one of the most poorly conceived mechanisms in all of political science. The notion that voters (by voting) have precise control over their representatives’ behavior is a mathematical impossibility. Using a single known variable, we calculate that political parties, presidents and representatives legislate in a world almost entirely devoid of accountability to the voter. As a result, the voter is virtually powerless to sanction their representative anything but the top one or two issues.

But this doesn’t mean that legislators are unaccountable to everyone. Instead it means that legislators, on the vast majority of the issues, become exclusively accountable to those in power. As Richard Fenno wrote in 1976 “(Members grow to) feel more accountable to some constituents than to others because the support of some constituents is more important to them than the support of others.” Below, scholar Bessette makes it clear precisely who Fenno intends by ‘some constituents.’

The opening up of the legislative process can make lawmakers much more directly accountable to interest groups whose support they may need for reelection.
– Bessette 1994 - Mild Voice of Reason

Accountability Benefits the Powerful

Opening meetings to the public has meant opening meetings to everyone, including lobbyists, who, it has been claimed, take an even greater part in writing Ways and Means legislation than they did in the past...Thus, the open meetings have made members more accountable to whoever cares to pay attention.
– Rudder 1977 – Committee Reform

The ability to sanction a legislator for their actions has everything to do with money and power. Indeed, the wealthy and the powerful are able to pressure legislators on issues that voters cannot, and in ways that is far superior to voting. This dynamic, which overturns traditional notions of accountability, is explained precisely by scholar Jane Schacter in the quotation below.

Because of familiar collective action problems, well-organized groups, who monitor legislative activity closely, are much better situated than the mass electorate to secure real accountability from incumbent legislators. And these groups have more resources for demanding accountability; they have not just individual votes with which to threaten lawmakers, but the ability to aggregate many votes and to withhold or deploy resources like lobbyist assistance, contributions, and the threat of independent spending. Unorganized groups do not enjoy these advantages and often lack the ability even to push their issues on to the agenda. All of this suggests that the rhetoric of widespread accountability may obscure the reality of too much accountability for some and not enough for many.
– Schacter 2006 - Political Accountability

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We Claim >

Congressional accountability overwhelmingly benefits the wealthy and the powerful. This is because accountability, on the vast majority of issues, is not achieved by voting but instead relies on money, ruthlessness, insider information and power.

Myth Three {{TransVar>1 ? ' - Actuality' : ''}}

{{TransVar>1 ? 'Corruption Relies on Transparency' : 'Corruption Relies on Secrecy'}}

Summary The Reality We Claim

To many, the idea of corruption brings up images of secrecy – smoke-filled rooms, back-room deals, money-filled briefcases changing hands in dark alleys, etc. And the overwhelming consensus is that secrecy breeds corruption. As a result, both scholars and transparency organizations assume that increased transparency is the proper tool to battle corruption.

Secrecy fuels corruption and leads to inequality and poverty.
– José Ugaz 2016 - Chair of Transparency International

As such, these assumptions have been parroted for decades. In one example, Supreme Court Justice, Earl Warren, wrote a paper called ‘Secrecy: Corruption’s Ally’ where he states this notion clearly: “When secrecy surrounds government and the activities of public servants, corruption has a breeding place.”

The Reality
Transparency can actually make corruption worse.
– Johnston 2016 - The Sunlight Paradox

Congressional corruption doesn’t require secrecy. This is because congressional corruption is the result of an outside pressure (i.e. bribery or intimidation) that drives a lawmaker to change their votes or actions – but these outside pressures don’t need to be applied in secret. Indeed, as in the case (below) of the Koch brothers’ bold and public attempt to bribe national legislation, many forms of grand-scale corruption rely instead on end-to-end transparency.

Indeed, end-to-end transparency imparts enormous advantages on powerful political players (i.e. the President), corporate interests, and other groups in their application of grand scale intimidation and bribery. This is because the transparency (or a public broadcast) ironically gives their actions a perceived sense of legitimacy while also providing an expedited way to interface with legislators.

Combining these public threats and bribes with the transparency of legislator’s votes (which are often the essential transactional commodity of the corrupt act), we find that grand scale corruption is not just fully compatible with transparency, it is enhanced by it.

More Examples of Transparent Corruption

The question arises (whether)...transparency is either conducive to more corruption or, at least, to corruption taking forms that are more detrimental to efficiency or equity.
– Albert Breton 2007 - The Economics of Transparency in Politics

The Koch Brothers aren’t the only ones to broadcast their threats and bribes publicly. These tactics are seen in the approach of the NRA, Presidents, Chamber of Commerce, teachers unions, activist groups and others. This public approach was evident in 2005, following Hurricane Katrina, when the distribution of federal aid to victims (as appropriated by Congress) was lower than what many observers expected. Representative Tom Davis puts the blame entirely on corruption via public/transparent intimidation:

The only reason you had 70 MCs vote for aid after Hurricane Sandy was because several groups, Club for Growth, Heritage Action, Freedom Works (stated publicly) ‘we are weighing this vote,’ basically threatening to go after MCs that voted for that kind of aid.
– Rep Tom Davis 2005 - Partisan Divide

Ironically, the amount of public threatening (which almost did not exist before 1970) is so common that we almost fail to notice it, as even hardnosed news source Frontline fails to in the quote below. But like bribery, intimidation can be readily carried out in public, in Super Bowl ads or the press, in an attempt to alter legislation, no secrecy required. For a more detailed discussion see our paper, ‘The Evolution of Transparent Corruption.’

The NRA activated its playbook— denouncing the legislation, alerting its members and (publicly) threatening lawmakers.
– Frontline 2015 - Gunned Down

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We Claim >

Transparency not only allows for grand scale corruption, it enhances it. Unlike secrecy, it allows powerful groups to literally ‘hide in the sunshine’ as they conduct acts in public that would be considered corrupt if they were done in secret.

Myth Four {{TransVar>1 ? ' - Actuality' : ''}}

{{TransVar>1 ? 'Pro-Transparency Evidence is Lacking' : 'The Evidence Supports Transparency'}}

Summary The Reality We Claim
Today, we will shine a bright light on the linkage between lobbyists and legislators with legislation that requires an unprecedented level of disclosure. And in so doing, we keep our promise to drain the swamp that is Washington DC, to let sunshine disinfect the Congress.
– Nancy Pelosi 2007 - Open Government Act

Is there evidence to support increased transparency and accountability? This is the notion embraced by the World Bank, President Obama (“a democracy requires accountability, and accountability requires transparency”), countless journalists, myriad scholars and even by an internal congressional caucus devoted to transparency.

Futher, some pundits claim that they have proof. For example, White House counsel, Norman Eisen went so far as to claim in a 2017 talk at Harvard that the data supports congressional transparency, citing his often cited (and flawed) Brookings paper as evidence.

The Reality
After reviewing the empirical evidence for the assumed link between transparency and accountability, I have come to the conclusion that one does not necessarily lead to the other.
– Jonathan Fox 2007 - Uncertain Relationship

There is no evidence to support the benefits of congressional transparency. The most systematic study on the topic states right at the top that “government transparency is no cure-all and does not always have positive outcomes.” And while the article is sometimes supportive of the notion of government transparency, it underlines time and again, that the evidence to support transparency is far from conclusive, stating that the “efforts to enhance transparency often result in more harm than good.”

Further, celebrated scholars Mansbridge and Warren claim the direct opposite, stating that “the empirical evidence on the deliberative benefits of closed-door interactions seems incontrovertible.” This not only agrees with the work of James Madison and the other Founders who were all strong advocates of secrecy, it also corresponds with the data, which shows that the US, under a secretive legislature (1960s), had all time lows in income inequality, partisanship, incarceration and government spending.

And... There's no Research Either

This abject lack of supporting evidence is surprising as transparency has been pushed and supported by over a hundred countries and thousands of cities and states. Yet, despite the lack of evidence, many scholars and academics, like Nobel Prize winner, Joseph Stiglitz make exaggerated claims, touting the benefits of transparency without feeling the need to cite evidence or a single supportive study.

Secrecy is corrosive: it is antithetical to democratic values, and it undermines democratic processes. It is based on a mistrust between those governing and those governed; and at the same time, it exacerbates that mistrust.
– Joseph Stiglitz 1999 - The Role of Transparency

Amazed by the lack of data and scholarly work on the topic, scholar Frank Baumgartner (2017) wrote us gushing about our findings: “So interesting. Goes against all the accepted wisdom on a topic where wisdom is so easily accepted, where there is so little research.”

Indeed, it seems impossible that something as important as congressional transparency could rely on so little research and evidence. And we cover some reasons for this oversight in our paper. Nevertheless, when the 1970 Act was passed to open congressional committees and voting, the congressional hearings were based purely on emotion, politics and guesswork, and did not cite a single piece of evidence or research. And, from that day, scholars have followed suit, touting the benefits of transparency despite the evidence.

Still, if we merely look at correlation, the evidence suggests that transparency is indeed detrimental to democracy. Time and again we see that increased transparency correlates strongly with diminished legislative outcomes and greater capture by special interests. Still, even when this evidence appears obvious, it is ignored. In the case of the World Bank, despite seeing clear evidence, they continued to push forward with transparency as seen in this citation.

In the former Soviet countries local governance institutions have become much more open to public scrutiny, but at the same time there can be little doubt that corruption at all levels has greatly increased...The message for the international development community is to press forward with as many of these accountability mechanisms as is feasible.
– Litvack 2011 - World Bank Report

The same flawed logic appears to hold in the United States as well. Since the introduction of committee transparency in the early 1970s, numerous important metrics have tilted to favor special interests. This can be seen in everything from inequality, to increased lobbying, to soaring incarceration rates, to the near hegemony of oil and coal companies over the discussion on climate. In the most salient example, the conference committees on federal taxation opened their doors in late 1975, within just a few years the tax rates on the nation’s wealthiest had plummeted (see graph below). Yet despite all of this, there is a continued and increasing push for greater transparency, based on no clear evidence at all.

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We Claim >

There is an abject lack of evidence, data or research to support congressional transparency. Worse, the correlations, data, and increasingly, the theory, strongly suggest that congressional transparency leads to poor legislative outcomes.

Myth Five {{TransVar>1 ? ' - Actuality' : ''}}

{{TransVar>1 ? 'Intense Citizen Engagement is Not Necessary' : 'Citizen Engagement is Necessary'}}

Summary The Reality We Claim
A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or perhaps both.
– James Madison 1822

Nearly every democratic reform initiative relies notions of increased citizen engagement. This is not a new approach. Since the time of the Founders, it has been assumed that an informed and engaged citizenry is essential to the success of democracy – the logic being that an informed citizenry will elect better candidates and better hold them accountable.

In turn, these ‘democratizing’ reforms rely on the further assumption that citizens have the capacity and desire to engage. Indeed, most transparency advocacy groups adhere to the belief that citizens would readily engage if all government information was made available in an accessible form. In other words, they assume that the citizen demand for government information is there, but the supply needs to be improved.

The Reality
Nothing strikes the student of public opinion and democracy more forcefully than the paucity of information most people possess about politics. Decades of behavioral research have shown that most people know little about their elected officeholders, less about their opponents, and virtually nothing about the public issues that occupy officials from Washington to city hall.
– Ferejohn 1990 - Information and the Electoral Process

Study after study confirms that citizens do not pay attention to the vast majority of the actions of Congress. Voter ignorance is rampant and always has been. Further, it is unlikely to improve, as government produces millions of pages of hearings each year, tens of thousands of pages of legislation, involving thousands of votes on myriad intricate and nuanced issues covering subjects as diverse as boll weevils, genetically modified foods, theoretical economics, trade policy, weapons systems, tax code adjustments, education reform, etc. Even the most vigilant citizens are quickly overwhelmed. And while the evidence is clear that citizens do not pay attention to government, it seems just as likely that this is something citizens are incapable of doing, as seen in the quote below.

Data – especially evidence assembled by behavioral economists – strongly indicate that people are neither as able to process information nor as likely to act on it as transparency theory presumes.
– Etzioni 2010 - Is Transparency the Best Disinfectant?

A Republic to the Rescue

Not everyone agrees that low levels of civic knowledge constitute a threat to democratic politics...many believe that the need for a generally informed citizenry is overstated. For these scholars the solution [is] to rethink the definition of democracy itself. This view is reflected in the words of E.E. Schattschneider, who wrote: “It is an outrage to attribute the failures of American democracy to the ignorance and stupidity of the masses. The most disastrous shortcomings of the system have been those of the intellectuals whose concepts of democracy have been amazingly rigid and uninventive.”
– Delli Carpini 2005 – What Americans Know about Politics

While a number of scholars claim that a lack of citizen engagement is a fatal problem, significant data suggests otherwise. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that governments function just fine (and perhaps better) without a fully informed citizenry.

For example, the US and other governments operated for decades in almost complete secrecy. In America’s case, there was strong legislative (and executive) secrecy from the writing of the Constitution to the passage of the EPA and the Civil Rights Acts in the latter half of the 20th century. Importantly, many critical democratic metrics (i.e. income equality, government approval ratings) were far better in those periods than they are today. Further, those countries that did not subject their legislatures to transparency (i.e. France) had far better results with inequality than the US.

It seems possible then, that Madison and Jefferson’s notion that democracy requires an engaged and informed citizenry is a myth as well. Sure, this ignorance would be tragic in a direct democracy, as each voter would have to come to an informed decision on everything. But, this is a counterfactual argument, as there are no direct democracies on earth, and referendums have a dark a sordid history. Like most countries, the US is a republican democracy, and voter ignorance on the vast majority of nuanced issues is not necessarily tragic in a republic.

This is because a republic works in much the same way as one might hire a plumber, roofer, surgeon or a mechanic. Indeed, when citizens choose to hire doctors or mechanics, the evidence is pretty clear that even when it comes to possible life threatening outcomes, few of us choose to become as informed as we likely should. Instead we decide in ways very similar to how we choose our candidates, judging hastily on personality, recommendations from friends and convenience.

Thus a republic, with closed committees and secret committee votes, fits precisely with what we know about the public’s limited attention span. By having the final floor votes open, the active citizens can still correlate votes to candidates, but by closing the doors of committtees, the lobbyists and other extreme demanders are kept in check.

This is a process that has, for the most part, worked for decades in the US. And during this time, there is no evidence of a single voter clammoring for more information on congressional votes, yet important decisions were being made in secret every day. Indeed, both John F Kennedy and James Madison were members of this secretive era of Congress, and as a result, none of their committee votes and markup decisions were made available publicly. But voter still aligned themselves to their causes and voted for them based on a still vast, and often overwhelming, amount of public information from their speeches, floor votes and other actions.

{{ReadMore1==1 ? 'Hide' : 'Read more (A Republic to the Rescue)'}}

We Claim >

There is no evidence to suggest that the public is willing or even capable of engage in democracy in the ways many reformers recommend or require. But, this isn’t necessarily bad news, as there is no evidence to support the notion that a republic needs an engaged electorate to function properly. Indeed, republics appear to function better when citizen engagement is intentionally limited.

Myth Six {{TransVar>1 ? ' - Actuality' : ''}}

{{TransVar>1 ? 'Corporations Benefit From Transparency' : 'Corporations Loathe Transparency'}}

Summary The Reality We Claim

Perhaps the most important notion of transparency is that increased government sunshine will put a check on the secret dealings between corporations and the government. And therefore, corporations looking to avoid regulations, taxes and perhaps even maintain monopolies find government transparency problematic as it impinges on their ability to manipulate the government.

The Reality
Transparency is a useful tool for lobbyists – it enables them to keep better track of their competitors, and to demand equal access for themselves.
– Frum 2014 - The Transparency Trap

In the greatest of ironies, corporate lobbyists team up with transparency advocates to open doors of legislatures. And there is no evidence to suggest that corporate lobbyists have ever fought back against transparency initiatives or been held in check by increased transparency. Just the opposite seems to be the case. Indeed, in 2013, the American League of Lobbyist, the nation’s largest lobbying industry group stated that it aims “to foster open and transparent debates in the formulation of public policy.”

In the 1980s even the most pro-transparency groups (Nader, Common Cause) were rethinking their positions on openess because legislation produced behind closed doors continued to be better than those in open sessions. Further, in the late 1960s, when there was strong legislative secrecy, both corporations and business lobbyists were continually shut out of the legislative process, leading Supreme Court Justice and Big-Tobacco Lawyer Lewis Powell to complain with fury:

Business has been the favorite whipping-boy of many politicians for many years…Current examples of the impotency of business, and of the near-contempt with which businessmen’s views are held, are the stampedes by politicians to support almost any legislation related to consumerism or to the environment.
– Powell 1971 - Attack on the Free Enterprise System
We Claim >

Government transparency overwhelmingly benefits corporate interests. Further, we have found no evidence, nor do we expect to find any, of a corporate interest (or corporate lobbyist) pushing back against increased transparency, as it is often essential to their success.

Myth Seven {{TransVar>1 ? ' - Actuality' : ''}}

{{TransVar>1 ? 'Legislators are Coerced Into Compromise' : 'Legislators Are Easily Bought'}}

Summary The Reality We Claim

One of the most cited clichés/myths is the notion that legislators are easily bought. As politician Jim Hightower says “candidates trek to the corporate suites and secret retreats of the rich, shamelessly selling their political souls.” Or as Ted Cruz says “career politicians’ ears and wallets are open to the highest bidder.” This is a notion that is based on ample real world evidence and academic studies. And its proponents comes from both the right and the left:

American democracy has been hacked...The United States now incapable of passing laws without permission from the corporate lobbies and other special interests that control their campaign finances.
– Al Gore 2013 - The Future
The Reality
Is it really possible that with each election for the last 200 years the voters continually manage to vote in only corrupt individuals?
– D'Angelo 2015 - The Ghost Bill (MIT)

A  strong correlation between PAC money and voting behavior doesn’t prove that members of congress are willing to be bought. And even with clear data showing that a number of individual legislators have succumbed to bribery doesn’t equate to proof either, as the number of convictions (and even indictments) includes only a tiny minority (less than 1%) of legislators.

So, with conviction rates as low as this, it appears that members of Congress might be no more or less corrupt than most any other group of people. This notion was underlined in an email exchange we had with scholar Dan Ariely about his work, where he finds that folks involved in politics are no more or less honest than regular people, but likely twice as honest as bankers. And from actors, to athletes, to religious leaders, to corporate execs, he finds similar numbers of bad seeds in every group.

Intimidation >> Bribery

So how do we square the circle? We know that studies show that PAC money correlates to influence. We know that citizens can feel the pervasive power of corporate money (bankers, oil companies and the pharmaceutical companies) on legislation. Is it really possible to defend our legislators from the accusations of venality?

The trouble with these notions is a blinkered focus on bribery when bribery is just one of a myriad number of ways that legislators can be pressured. Indeed, members can be pressured by negative ads, bad press, and by being blocked at producing legislation that they promised their constitutents. As such, there are many ways to pressure (even corrupt) a legislator who cannot be bribed. Further as pressures go, bribery appears to be one of the most expensive and least effective.

So a corporation, given a budget of a million dollars to persue legislative outcomes, might find it much more economical to run negative ads, fund a competitor or finagle inside of the political system to cripple the legislators whose votes they need. And the most economical way to pressure a legislature is intimidation, which often doesn’t cost anything at all. This is the tactic employed by groups like the NRA, which will make blanket threats to all legislators, wherin they only have to spend money if a legislator steps out of line. This is far more cost effective than bribery, and has an effect on legislators that have never even interacted with the NRA.

We Claim >

The evidence does not support the idea that legislators are willing to be bought. Further, these commonly accepted notions of venality are based on a blinkered/outsider view of how legislation is crafted. Instead, legislators are pressured by intimidation not just by special interests but also by members of their own party. And because of transparency, even the most ideal legislators are forced into awkward and corrupt appearing compromise.