Eight out of 10 American voters oppose slaughtering horses for human consumption according to a new poll sponsored by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), one of the country’s leading advocates for animal welfare. This overwhelming opposition to slaughter crosses gender lines, geography, political affiliation, and whether people live in the country or in the city.

With that much voter support, passing antislaughter legislation should be a slam dunk in Congress. But it isn’t, never has been.

So why does federal anti-slaughter legislation stall every year?

It’s a puzzling question, without an easy answer.

One reason lies with the representative nature of our government. The 80% of voters who oppose horse slaughter don’t actually vote on individual bills. That’s impractical for a lot of reasons, although we’re closer than ever to a real democracy thanks to the exponential growth of the Internet. Instead, voters go the polls to elect representatives who—in the best of all possible worlds—actually represent the interests of their constituents. Unless they don’t.

Another possibility is that our Congressmen and women represent the interests of people who didn’t elect them to office, including the individuals or organizations willing to turn over the most money. These campaign contributions are not bribes, technically anyway, but staying in office is the first priority for politicians, and winning the next election can be a pricey endeavor.

Undue influence is the easy answer, one the cynic in me would like to embrace, but it might not be the right one.

Money, Money, Money

Let’s take a look at S. 1176, the Senate version of the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act of 2011. The bill was introduced in June 2011 by Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat from Louisiana. There are 26 co-sponsors and while the majority (19) is from Sen. Landrieu’s own party, there is support for the slaughter ban from both sides of the aisle. The same day the bill was introduced, it was referred to the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, where it languishes eight months later.

Campaign contributions are a matter of public record, but trying to sort out who gave what to whom on the Committee might take weeks, if you’re lucky. Thankfully, MapLight has done some of the heavy lifting for us. MapLight is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group that monitors campaign contributions to members of Congress. Results of the group’s research, sorted by legislation and contributors, can be found at www.maplight.org. It’s enlightening reading.

According to MapLight, campaign contributions from interest groups that oppose S. 1176 total $605,850, while contributions from groups that support the anti-slaughter legislation total $204,305. The opponents of S. 1176 are making donations at a 3-to-1 clip compared to the bill’s supporters.

The difference is not so marked when you look only at the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee members—$116,400 from opponents of S. 1176, $64,955 from supporters—but the split is still almost 2-1.

Flipping the House

MapLight numbers for H.R. 2966, the House of Representatives version of the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act of 2011, paint a different picture.

Like its Senate counterpart, H.R. 2966 was consigned to a committee (House Agriculture) soon after it was introduced. Like S. 1176, H.R. 2966 is still in committee.

Unlike in the Senate, though, campaign contributors who support anti-slaughter legislation have the upper hand in giving when it comes to the House of Representatives. MapLight numbers show $122,650 from interest groups in favor of the legislation, $66,045 from interest groups in opposition.

So where does that leave us?

S. 1176 is stalled in committee in the Senate, where contributions from opponents outpace contributions from supporters 3-1; H.R. 2966 is stalled in committee in the House, where contributions from supporters were twice as much as contributions from opponents.

The MapLight numbers are a good start in figuring out which contributors might be influencing our legislators on a particular issue, but they are only a start.

The numbers reflect money given to the congressional campaigns of legislators in office for the 112th Session (the current one) during the period from July 1, 2005 through June 30, 2011. This means that a significant part of the total contributions were made before S. 1176 and H.R. 2966 were introduced. Similar anti-slaughter bills were introduced during the six-year period tracked by MapLight, though, so it’s reasonable to assume that support or opposition to those bills influenced at least some of the contributions.

The situation is complicated further because individuals and organizations either for or against the anti-slaughter legislation almost certainly supported or opposed other legislation. So it’s not fair to conclude that all the money contributed by supporters and opponents of S. 1176 and H.R. 2966 was directed to influence votes on those specific bill.

Finally, the designation of donors as supporters or opponents of the bill is not cast in stone. MapLight might have mischaracterized donors, or missed some entirely.

I wanted an easy answer, but I didn’t find one.

Does money talk in Washington?

Do campaign contributors exert too much influence on decisions—good or bad—made by Congress?