Although I’m quite certain that French writer, Alphonse Karl, did not have the American political system in mind in 1849 when he penned, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (The more things change, the more they stay the same), he could have easily been referring to the new campaign finance law which just passed both houses of Congress. Before discussing the specifics of the new bill, I want to spend a minute looking at a related matter. The new law will have little if any effect on the financial assistance AAP/PLAN will continue to need to give to federal candidates who are supporters of psychology. The law’s passage, however, is useful in underscoring the significance of the whole concept of providing campaign support for the purpose of advocating psychology’s legislative agenda. It is my contention that psychologists, AAP members excluded, harbor a very damaging misconception about the way public policy is created. Our training in research helps to perpetuate thinking among us dominated by the belief that well documented research will be not only necessary, but sufficient to persuade legislators to adopt our policy positions.
It is a myth to think that psychological research woven into highly technical policy papers will materially influence Congress. And, the myth’s perpetuation is detrimental to the pursuit of our legislative agenda. Politics, not research, is the coin of the realm on Capitol Hill. And, campaign financing drives a good deal of politics. This is not to say, by any means, that money buys votes, or that research data are useless. It is to say, though, that money in the form of campaign contributions continues to be among the most important ways to gain access to the political system. Votes are equally important, but until psychologists’ voting population reaches the level of the AARP population, votes will be less effective than campaign contributions for psychology.
If you have any doubt about what I am saying, just look at a new study published in Health Affairs. According to the study, state officials, often “overwhelmed” by the amount of health policy research that they receive, have a “strong preference” for “information that is concise and more relevant to current debates” and often do not read more than one-third of that research. The study interviewed 292 state officials nationwide and found that state officials “skim” 53% of the health policy research that they receive, do not read 35% of the information and only read 27% of the information in detail. The study also found that state officials prefer “short bulleted paragraphs” with charts and graphs to highlight “key points,” rather than information “containing large blocks of type.” Enough said?
The particulars of the new campaign finance law are worth taking a look at just to demonstrate that not much has really changed with regard to the financing of political campaigns. When President Bush signs into law the most sweeping rewrite of federal campaign fundraising rules since Watergate, few members of Congress will shudder in fear for their political futures. The appearance of Enron improprieties in the political system made it almost mandatory for Congress to pass some form of campaign finance reform this year. I want to emphasize the word “appearance” because despite large numbers of campaign contributions to candidates from both sides of the political aisle there is no evidence that any actual improprieties with Enron occurred. But the public demanded some action, never mind that the action they took doesn’t do a lot to substantively change anything. Experts agree that the new campaign bill preserves big advantages for incumbents, 98 percent of whom won re-election in the year 2000. Congressmen rarely take actions that are not in their own best interests. Backers of the measure stress that its main purpose was not to “level the playing field” but to rein in unregulated “soft money” donations to the national political parties that have led to a string of scandals and allegations that politicians are selling access.
It would seem to me that the soft money ban will be devastating for challengers and incumbents also will benefit from a doubling in individual donation limits (from $1,000 to $2,000). A decision to scrap requirements for discounted television time will also benefit incumbents. The parties increasingly have used soft money to help finance “issue ads” that skirt federal campaign laws and aid their candidates—both incumbents and, in close races, challengers. The ban will reduce the ability of the parties to assist challengers, and nobody else has a strong interest in seeing challengers succeed.
Obviously, AAP closely monitors changes that affect the campaigns of political candidates, and particularly those who are supporters of psychology. The new campaign finance reform law will have no appreciable effect whatsoever on the way in which campaigns are financed from our perspective. For psychology, the greatest impact on campaign financing would result from extinguishing the myth among psychologists that research, not politics and campaign contributions, fuel public policy. We have the potential to be REAL players in the political process if we just step up to the plate. Read Ron Fox’s column in this edition of Advance to see how relatively simple it would be for psychology to advance to the next level of play in the political process.