How Campaign Money Facilitates Access to Policymakers

The forthcoming article “Campaign Contributions Facilitate Access to Congressional Officials: A Randomized Field Experiment” by Joshua L. Kalla and David E. Brookman is summarized here:

To many people, it’s obvious that campaign donations influence how policymakers behave. However, to many others — including most political scientists — it’s obvious that they don’t. What’s the truth? This question has challenged generations of social scientists, and there are passionate advocates on both sides of the debate. However, the sizable literature on this topic has converged towards the understanding that most available evidence is insufficient for assessing the impact of contributions. The challenge with parsing out cause and effect can be appreciate with the following example: if legislators tend to support policies their donors prefer, is this because legislators are kowtowing to their donors, or simply because donors have chosen to give to the legislators who already agree with them?

Our study helps break new ground on this question, focusing on whether organized groups can gain superior access to senior Congressional staffers because their members have contributed to campaigns. To answer this question, we used a randomized experiment that allows us to understand the impacts of interest groups’ real activity in the halls of Congress. In the experiment, a political group attempting to build support for a bill before Congress tried to schedule meetings between local campaign contributors and Members of Congress in 191 congressional districts. However, the organization randomly assigned whether it informed legislators’ offices in requests for the meetings that individuals who would attend the meetings were “local campaign donors” or “local constituents.” When the attendees were revealed to be “local campaign donors,” they often gained access to Members of Congress, Legislative Directors, and Chiefs of Staff. But when the attendees were described as only “local constituents,” they almost never gained this level of access. There has long been suspicion that Members of Congress privilege individuals’ requests because they have contributed to campaigns. This simple experiment grants strong support to those concerns.

There is much our experiment does not tell us. For example, we do not know if this sort of access translates into tangible influence. Access to senior policymakers is certainly highly valued in Washington, but we do not know if it is valued correctly. In addition, we can’t be sure why policymakers were more likely to meet with donors. Of course, it may be because they hoped to raise more money from them. But it’s also possible legislators think donors are likely to be policy experts — or that they saw the interest groups’ revelation that prospective attendees were donors as an implicit threat. Nevertheless, our results have similar social consequences regardless of the thought process in policymakers’ heads that resulted in their preferential treatment.

The paper delves into these issues in greater detail, and we very much hope you will read it and tell us what you think.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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