People who know more about Congress are more concerned with money in politics, study finds

New research suggests that suspicions about money in politics are related to Americans’ disapproval of their elected lawmakers.

According to a new study, which was published in American Politics Research, people who are the most knowledgeable about Congress also tend to be more troubled by the impact of unlimited political spending, which in turn makes them more likely to disapprove of how Congress performs.

“Polls regularly show Americans don’t think very highly of Congress, and that, by far, Congress is the least popular of the three branches of government. For much of the past decade, less than 20% approve of how Congress is doing its job,” said study author Todd Donovan, a professor of political science at Western Washington University.

“Academics have various explanations for this, some of which put an emphasis on problems with public perceptions rather than actual problems with Congress itself. That is, low regard for Congress may reflect that people dislike the give and take of legislative processes; they don’t like the ‘sausage making,’ the partisan rancor, the need for deals, bargaining, messy tradeoffs, and all of that.”

“Things are amplified by the 24/7 news cycle that focuses on these processes that people dislike. This view implies that people under-appreciate Congress, or misunderstand it. It doesn’t acknowledge that people might have more substantive reasons for disliking Congress,” Donovan told PsyPost.

“Another view is that people are highly suspicious of money in politics, and of the improper influence that money – particularly large amounts of ‘independent’ campaign expenditures – has over members of Congress. This study examines how public perceptions of campaign finance affect attitudes about Congress.”

For their study, the researchers analyzed data from the 2012 Cooperative Congressional Election Study. In line with other surveys, they found that most people strongly disapproved of Congress. Just 17% approved of the way Congress was performing.

The researchers also found evidence that disapproval of Congress was related to perceptions of the role of money in politics.

“Our results directly contradict Justice Kennedy’s claim in Citizens United that ‘independent expenditure do not lead to, or create the appearance of, quid pro quo corruption,” Donovan explained.

The Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizen United ruling overturned restrictions on political donations. The decision paved the way for so-called super PACs, which can collect unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, and other groups.

“We find a large majority of respondents agreed that unlimited spending by unions and corporations, the sort of spending made possible after the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, gave groups improper influence over Congress,” Donovan told PsyPost.

“This sentiment was particularly strong among people who had the highest factual knowledge about Congress, and it is a strong predictor of disapproving of congressional representatives and Congress as a whole.”

“The most knowledgeable were also less likely to view limited contributions as improper. People who knew the most about Congress, then, were substantially more likely to find unlimited independent spending – the sort allowed by Citizens United – to be troubling. Given the role of knowledge about Congress here, it is difficult to conclude that low approval of Congress is grounded in Congress and congressional processes being misunderstood,” Donovan said.

The researchers found that 70% of participants viewed a $5,000 contribution from a union as corrupt, while 65% viewed a $5,000 contribution from a corporation as corrupt. But 51% also viewed a $5,000 contribution from an individual as corrupt, suggesting that people are suspicious about the financing of political campaigns in general.

“Citizens may well be overly critical of the influence of campaign financiers. In addition to viewing unlimited independent expenditures as improper, most people also find legal, limited contributions to congressional candidates as ‘somewhat corrupt’ or ‘corrupt,'” Donovan said.

“Yet a considerable body of quantitative research has looked hard to find systematic evidence of quid pro quo between contributors and legislators, with mixed results. Thus, we cannot conclude that people are ‘correct’ in perceiving the improper influence of campaign money. Nonetheless, perceptions of representatives and Congress are tarnished by these attitudes.”

The study, “To Know It Is to Loath It: Perceptions of Campaign Finance and Attitudes About Congress”, was authored by