Are GOP Donors Going to Get Anything In Return For Their Millions?

If you're a liberal zillionaire who contributed lots of money this year to prevent a Republican takeover of the Senate, on Tuesday you're probably going to be pretty unhappy. Which is why, Ken Vogel of Politico reports, the people who run the groups through which all those millions are being channeled are rushing to reassure their donors that it was still money well spent. Which got me thinking about the conservative donors who are probably going to be celebrating next week. For some of them, Republican victories are an end in themselves, but others have a more specific agenda in mind. They help Republicans get elected because they expect something in return.

To be clear, I'm not talking about quasi-legal bribery. If you're an oil company or a Wall Street firm, you donate to Republicans not so that they'll be forced to do what you want whether they like it or not, but because you know they like it quite well. Republicans want, deep in their hearts, to cut taxes and slash regulations and open up public lands to drilling and all the other things that would benefit their donors. But are they actually going to be able to deliver?

Those investments have been huge. Here are just a couple of details from the Center for Responsive Politics:

Wall Street as a whole has contributed $171.1 million, more than any other industry or interest group that CRP tracks. Of that total, $100.8 million has gone to candidates and party committees, with an overwhelming 62 percent of it winding up in the hands of Republicans and just 38 percent in the hands of Democrats. The remaining money, more than $70 million, went to outside groups, and $45.8 million of that went to conservative-leaning organizations.

But while securities and investment was the top donor industry for GOP candidates, for Democrats the No. 1 slot was occupied by lawyers and law firms. Overall, that was the third-ranking industry this election cycle, giving $66.4 million to Democrats and $28.4 to Republicans through the third quarter.

One grouping new to the top 10 is Environment—a category that includes a number of fairly small-spending groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council. What made the difference this year were contributions from Tom Steyer, a billionaire who made his money in hedge funds; he has contributed $73.7 million this cycle to outside groups, all focused on the environment or aligned with Democrats.

Steyer has said that his goals are long-term—specifically, he wants to elevate the place of climate change in public debate and elect people who will (eventually) do something about it. But if Wall Street has contributed over $100 million to Republicans this year, they want something in return. And what are they going to get? The answer is probably not too much. Republicans have no doubt been telling them, "Help us get elected, and then you'll see!" But Barack Obama still has a veto pen, and the Treasury Department and the SEC are still staffed by his appointees (not that they're unfriendly to Wall Street, but they'll be no more friendly next year than they were this year). Republicans aren't going to be passing any major legislation—or much legislation at all—that will actually reward their friends, because if the legislation they pass would meaningfully advance conservative goals, Obama would veto it.

But people all over the place may be overestimating just how much change is going to come. Look, for instance, at this article (also from Politico) about how all the K Street lobbying firms are getting ready for boom times:

GOP lobbyists and consultants are strategizing about landing new business and looking forward to advising clients if Republicans take control of the Senate—setting off rapid change in the political dynamics of Capitol Hill.

Several lobbyists said they expect a bump in business in the first half of 2015 when companies look to recalibrate their outside rosters to engage more heavily with Senate Republicans.

"There will be a burst of excitement and activity as a result of that change," said former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who now heads Squire Patton Boggs' lobbying operation. "There is a lot of pent-up demand in the tax area, infrastructure, immigration, the budget and tax policy."

Lott said he thinks it will be a shot in the arm to K Street with a much busier legislative agenda.

Lobbyists need legislation in order to do their jobs. They especially like big bills that can be larded with lots of obscure provisions they obtain on behalf of their clients but that few people notice. And these have indeed been lean times—I have one friend who's been lobbying for years, who told me not long ago that he was considering a career change, because without any legislation going through Congress, his job had become all but irrelevant.

But what the hell is Trent Lott talking about here? Is a Republican Congress going to start passing bills on taxes, infrastructure, and immigration that Barack Obama will sign?

Of course they won't. What they will do, however, is write, debate, and maybe even pass a lot of bills that are ultimately doomed. Some will get filibustered by Senate Democrats, others may be vetoed. But at least Lott will be able to go to his clients and say that he earned his six-figure monthly retainer, because he got things inserted into bills for them, and it isn't really his fault if they never actually became law.

And that's what they'll get for their millions, at least in the short term: nothing.

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