Every election cycle, the donations given to Texas candidates and PACs come under intense scrutiny by media outlets, politicians, and citizens alike. Everyone wants to know who the biggest donors are (it’s always one of our most-viewed pages each cycle) and to speculate whether they are buying influence in Austin.
Who gets a lot less attention than donors? Lobbyists. Yet lobbying is a financial juggernaut, spending more money to influence lawmakers than all the donations given to candidates and PACs combined.
The comparative amount is even higher if you consider that the total donations to candidates and PACs include money given to many candidates who don’t win their campaigns and therefore never serve in office. Lobbying money, on the other hand, only goes to influencing elected politicians.
Citizens and PACs are allowed to make donations to a politician’s campaign account during the election season (Beginning 20 days after one legislative session ends until 30 days before the next one). But citizens and PACs are prohibited from making donations to politicians during the legislative session, while lawmakers are in Austin proposing and voting on legislation. This prohibition is designed to prevent donors and PACs from currying favor with legislators while they are casting votes.
Lobbyists, on the other hand, are under no such restrictions. Lobbyists can try to influence lawmakers 365 days per year. Once the session begins and donations are prohibited, lobbying becomes the political class’s primary form of influence. Citizens can also impact lawmakers’ choices during the session, but not in the same way lobbyists can. Campaign donations can only be used for campaign-related expenses or living expenses while in Austin. In contrast, lobbyists are allowed to wine and dine lawmakers, provide exclusive tickets to sporting events and other entertainment, and even give gifts — anywhere, any time.
Check out this summary of all the money donated to Texas candidates and PACs, all the money spent by those candidates and PACs, and all the money spent to lobby Texas politicians. You can toggle among different election cycles or see a summary of all dollars donated and spent since 2015.* In the last election cycle, the money spent on lobbying exceeded the money donated to Texas candidates and PACs by more than $100 million.
The most popular narrative about money in politics is that certain individuals or PACs are buying control in Austin or DC with their donation dollars. If you ask who’s “buying” politicians, you’d likely get names such as George Soros or the Koch brothers. All the focus lands squarely on big campaign donors. In Texas, typical boogeymen include oilmen on the right and well-funded PACs like ActBlue or Planned Parenthood on the left. The truth is that lobbying is the largest and most pervasive financial influence on politicians. And most Texans can’t name a single lobbyist.
Politicians contribute to this misleading narrative by sanctimoniously refusing to accept donations from corporate PACs and by advocating for limits on donations from individuals. It’s discussed at length every election cycle. When was the last time you heard those same politicians, once elected, advocating for limits on lobbying or calling for more transparency on the gifts they’ve been given by a lobbyist?
With our new Lobbying Data feature, you can now see who is lobbying your representatives, the organizations who are hiring those lobbyists, and whether they are using tax dollars to do it. Join us as we provide the answers you need about the money in Texas politics.
* The 2020 numbers include all the donations to, and expenditures by, candidates and PACs as of the most recent reports filed with the Texas Ethics Commission, February 24, 2020, so these numbers will increase as more reports are filed. The lobbying totals include prospective contracts through the end of 2020, so these numbers may or may not increase. Other, completed election cycles show that money spent on lobbying always exceeds money donated to candidates and PACs.