AJPS Author Summary – How Do Interest Groups Seek Access to Committees?

By Alexander Fouirnaies and Andrew B. Hall

Americans worry a lot about money in politics. Because corporations and other interest groups are disproportionately wealthy, and because they can donate to political campaigns, they may be able to influence policy in unfair ways. Despite this concern, a long literature in political science has struggled to pin down how this influence actually works, failing to find any obvious correlations between donations and policy outcomes. Moreover, the total amounts of money that corporations donate—while large, compared to the average American’s income—are small relative to their operating budgets, and do not seem large enough to sway elections systematically. What are interest groups getting in exchange for their contributions?

The idea in our paper, building on previous research, is to tackle this question indirectly. It’s too hard to try to locate the precise policy concessions that each interest group is looking for; these can be quite specific and won’t necessarily show up in aggregate measures of policy. Instead, we look at where interest groups deploy their political money. We ask: what do the patterns of interest-group contributions tell us about what these donors think they are getting out of the process?

To study this question, we compiled a new dataset on the committee positions of all state legislators (1988–2014), which we combine with electoral data and data on campaign contributions at the state level. We use the new data to explore which state legislators interest groups target with their money and why. First, we show that when legislators join a committee that oversees an interest group’s business interests, the group responds by donating more money to that legislator, on average. Interest groups do not only channel money to their allies in the legislature, but they donate to members who obtain legislative influence over relevant policies. This is consistent with patterns previously found in donations to members of the U.S. House and Senate.

If interest groups care about committee service, as our first results suggests, then they should also care about which legislators get assigned to which committees. In the second part of the paper, we use the data to look at whether interest groups also seek to influence the committee assignment process itself. We find that when a legislator takes over the job of assigning committees—usually by becoming the majority-party leader—she receives a substantial boost in contributions from interest groups. We take a number of steps to try to isolate this boost, and show that it is directly motivated by the committee assignment process and not just the general desire for interest groups to donate to legislative leaders. The evidence therefore suggests that interest groups are highly sophisticated in how they deploy their money. They not only support influential members involved in their area of business, but they even seek out legislators with procedural power who can affect policy indirectly. Although it is very difficult to establish direct effects of interest-group money on policy outcomes, the sophisticated patterns by which they donate their money strongly suggests they believe the money helps them attain their goals.

Separate from these findings, the paper also offers a new dataset on state legislative committee assignments, merged with electoral and campaign finance data, that will be freely available to researchers for future use. We believe that U.S. state politics is an under-appreciated research topic. State politics is incredibly important in setting many of the policies that Americans care moHow Do Interest Groups Seek Access to Committees?st about. Moreover, the 50 states offer researchers an incredible array of information about legislative politics, more generally. We hope that our paper will encourage more researchers to consider the U.S. states as a useful set of cases for more general analysis about democratic politics, interest groups, campaign finance, and more.

About the Authors: Alexander Fouirnaies is an Assistant Professor of Political Economy at Harris School, University of Chicago and Andrew B. Hall is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Stanford University. Their article “How Do Interest Groups Seek Access to Committees?” is now available for Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

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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.