When discussing political giving with fellow psychologists who are uninformed about AAP, two questions invariably arise that deserve greater clarification. The first concerns which political party AAP is affiliated with, and the second concerns whether AAP’s contributions are influenced by a given candidate’s position on a whole host of social concerns ranging from gun control to preservation of the environment.
The response to the first question about political party affiliation is both unequivocal and straightforward. As all readers of this column probably know, AAP operates a bipartisan political action committee which favors neither Democrats nor Republicans. For most of the last decade, AAP/PLAN has contributed funds almost equally to candidates of both parties. The Board of Trustees which ultimately controls AAP/PLAN’s disbursement of contributions has recognized over the years that in order to be optimally effective in promoting legislation favorable to psychology’s concerns requires that we develop and maintain relationships with members of both parties. Therefore, decisions about how our contributions are allocated are determined exclusively on the basis of psychology’s issues, not on the basis of the political party affiliation of a particular candidate.
In examining the question of political party affiliation of a PAC such as ours, it may be instructive to look for a moment at the American Medical Association’s (AMA) political operation, one that is significantly larger than ours (they dispersed nearly $3 million to psychology’s $200,000 in the last election cycle) which has recently been the subject of scrutiny in Washington. It wasn’t too long ago that the AMA was considered to be aligned with the Republicans. After all, the AMA’s political organization historically has given more money to Republican congressional candidates. This was underscored two years ago when the AMA fired the editor of its medical journal for publishing a study that found that most college students did not consider oral sex as having “had sex,” at the height of President Clinton’s impeachment proceedings. AMA critics at the time said the group’s Republican leanings played a role in its decision to fire Dr. George Lundberg, the editor, at a time when the GOP had been pursuing Clinton’s impeachment for lying about his affair with Monica Lewinsky.
Today, however, the AMA is being painted by an increasing number of GOP stalwarts as a booster of Democrats and their causes. Just last month, an influential Republican lawmaker at a House Ways and Means health subcommittee hearing accused the AMA of being aligned with Democratic-leaning trial lawyers on the issue of medical malpractice. Some Republican lawmakers say the health plans (their trade association is known as the American Association of Health Plans and is probably our primary adversary in the battle to pass patient protection legislation) are the only ones that want to rein in malpractice litigation. Some Republicans also are saying the AMA has shifted more than simply issue-support to Democrats. The AMA last year gave 47 percent of its nearly $2.1 million in donations to Democrats, according to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics. In the 1996 and 1998 elections, the AMA gave more than 70 percent of its donations to Republicans.
As you can see, the AMA increased its financial support to Democrats by more than 50% in the last cycle. Unlike the lopsided political giving history of the AMA, AAP/PLAN has attempted to achieve balance in its donations to candidates from both parties for many years. For the past five years we have given the maximum amount of PAC support that is legally permissible to our two psychologist/ Congressmen, Ted Strickland and Brian Baird (accounting for 10% of our total contributions). This causes our balance sheet to be slightly tilted toward Democrats because we don’t even come close to giving the maximum allowable to any other candidates. The political parties, who closely track the allocation of contributions from PACs, are well aware of where each group stands with regard to the distribution of monies as is evidenced by the criticism the AMA has come under based on the decrease in their contributions to Republicans. Accordingly, we are careful not to appear as if we favor one party or the other.
Candidates receive AAP’s support based on the requirements necessary to promote our legislative agenda. The goal of providing support to a candidate is to allow our issues to be heard by law makers who are in a position to make a positive impact on the legislation of concern to us. AAP’s Board of Trustees goes to great lengths to husband our relatively limited resources to insure they are deployed optimally. For example, AAP rarely gets involved in a political race that features a candidate who may be attractive to psychology, but has a low probability of winning the given seat (the exception to this policy involves psychologists running for federal office). One way AAP maximizes its limited resources is by investing the majority of its resources in incumbent candidates because they are victorious more than nine times out of ten. We select those individuals whom we support through careful assessment and the consideration of a whole host of factors including: the candidate’s previous support of our issues, the committee and subcommittee assignment of the candidate, the potential for winning the candidate’s support if not obtained previously, the odds of winning the race they are in, the leadership position of the candidate, etc.
The present discussion brings us to the second question raised in my introduction. The one having to do with whether or not AAP’s support of candidates is based on that individual’s position regarding social concerns. AAP does not and can not use the position a candidate takes on any social issue, even one related to psychology, as the litmus test for receiving contributions from AAP/PLAN. AAP/PLAN does not provide support based on a candidate’s position with regard to arsenic in drinking water, increasing the minimum wage, gun control, welfare reform, etc. Our determination of which candidates we support is based on one and only one factor, what impact will that candidate have on advancing psychology’s legislative agenda. No matter how strongly any of us feel about the importance of any social issue of the day, AAP’s mission as interpreted by its Board of Trustees for the past 10 years, has been unequivocally directed toward advancing the science and profession of psychology, period.
In an ideal world, the process of advancing psychology’s legislative agenda would coincide with the many social concerns that also affect psychologists’ personal lives. But it would render AAP completely ineffective if our policy dictated that our support be given only to legislators who both back psychology’s legislative agenda AND support the wide variety of social issues important to many psychologists. This concept fails on many grounds. First, the number of legislators we could support would be so severely reduced that we could never achieve the critical vote mass necessary to pass any measures that would be beneficial to psychology. Second, imagine trying to achieve consensus among a group of psychologists on prioritizing the critical social issues of our day. “Fugedaboudit” as Tony Soprano would say. Although our individual priorities in the public policy arena are extremely varied, the converse is true when viewed from the perspective of a professional psychologist. Despite the wide range of differences that exist among us with regard to such issues as gun control, abortion rights, tax relief, etc., there is broad agreement among psychologists about the issues that affect the profession, our patients, the need for research funding, etc.
Support for psychology’s issues comes from all quarters in Congress. AAP/PLAN does not provide support based on the gender, race, or the religious affiliation of any candidate. Conservative and liberal legislators alike have been supportive of our issues and conversely, AAP has supported the campaigns of both liberal and conservative legislators. Men and women legislators have supported our issues, and conversely, AAP has supported the campaigns of both men and women. Of note, in 1992, the Congressional “Year of the Woman,” AAP/PLAN distributed fully 25% of its contributions during that cycle to female candidates. In the 2000 election cycle, almost 20% of AAP/PLAN’s contributions went to women. Regrettably, women members still represent only 13% of the entire Congress. In any event, AAP’s mission is not to elect more women to Congress, but rather to support the election of both men and women candidates who are unambiguously supportive of psychology’s agenda.
When you are recruiting colleagues to become members of AAP and we need you our current members to spread the word to your colleagues, keep in mind that AAP’s mission is one-dimensional: to advance the science and profession of psychology in the public policy arena through the election of law makers sympathetic to the concerns of psychology. This objective should be greeted by our brothers and sisters with open arms and certainly should be uncontroversial among our brethren because we all have the same point of reference, being a psychologist.