Under the Influence: Money and Power in Politics

Ryan's Plan Unpopular With Voters, Not With Industry

Paul Ryan speaking at CPAC 2011. (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)Paul Ryan's budget plan may have spooked both moderate Democrats and Republicans with its steep Medicare cuts. The Senate rejected the plan just last week.

But while the House Budget Committee Chairman's proposed voucherization turned off many of his constituents and fellow lawmakers, it didn't staunch the money flowing in from industry donors.

Ryan, R-Wis., received tens of thousands of dollars in political contributions from corporate interests while he was drafting his proposal, Federal Election Commission records show.

FEC records from the "Ryan for Congress" campaign show substantial support from insurance PACs, investment firms and prominent conservative groups, including $1,500 from the conservative oil industry Koch PAC.

"Contributions given during the budgeting process can raise unique problems because legislators are making decisions which can directly affect that contributor's livelihood and business," said Jessica Levinson, director of political reform for the nonpartisan Center for Governmental Studies.

The New Republican Majority Fund, a tobacco- and insurance-funded PAC, put in $7,000, and thousands more came from insurers like Cigna PAC and Blue Cross and Blue Shield. Goldman Sachs managing director Muneer Satter added $5,000, and nearly $10,000 more came from Wisconsin-based Marshall & Ilsley bank.

Many of these organizations have supported Ryan in the past, and it's impossible to tell whether the timing of the gifts was meant to influence the budget.

Campaign contributions do tend to be more controversial, however, when they coincide with the writing of important legislation. Policymakers who sit on powerful congressional committees, as Ryan does, are especially hot targets for contributions.

"It is merely human nature that representatives would consciously or unconsciously be grateful to their large contributors," Levinson said. "That gratefulness can manifest in a budget that is favorable to large contributors."

Federal campaign contributors routinely make donations during election cycles, yet 28 states have outlawed the giving and receiving of campaign contributions during legislative sessions. The idea, at least in part, is to prevent conflicts of interest.

Voices from the left have criticized many of Ryan's budgetary provisions for unduly favoring insurance companies.

At the Center for Public Integrity, author and former insurance executive Wendell Potter argues that Ryan's proposed changes to Medicare, which would replace the government-run program with vouchers, would ultimately benefit private insurers.

The Commonwealth Fund's Gregory Stevens agrees: "The private insurance industry has a lot to gain from [the voucher system]," he said. "It dismantles the single-payer government program and turns it into a private insurance industry product."

For Ryan, stoking the private sector is standard operating procedure. His proposed 2010 "Roadmap for America's Future" would have slashed taxes and privatized a portion of Social Security. Some campaign finance experts point out that corporate contributors fill his coffers largely because of his conservative, pro-business track record.

"He was taking these positions to begin with, and his donors are just thrilled about it," said Richard Briffault, a Columbia University law professor.

His donors might have been thrilled, but many of Ryan's constituents weren't. So even if Ryan's 2011 contributions did not, in fact, influence his budgetary decisions, they may have further eroded public support of his policies, Levinson explains.

"[The contributions] may merely be an appearance issue, but appearances are important in a democracy, where every constituent should feel their legislators are making decisions that best serve the public good," she said. "If the public feels that their representatives are more responsive to the needs of contributors, as opposed to constituents, that sentiment can lead to a dangerous erosion of public confidence."

With the Senate vote last week, Ryan saw just what that lack of confidence could mean.

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