Impact of Campaign Contributions on Policy in Congress

Dominique Ornelas

The Impact of Campaign Contributions on Policy Making in Congress


From the 1960s and continuing through the 1980s the number, activity and diversity of interest groups being represented in Washington proliferated. Observers of this phenomenon, primarily journalist, argue that the rise in interest group activity has resulted in interest groups enjoying far too much influence in Congress (Smith, 1995; Stratmann, 2000). However, scholars paint a far less certain picture as to the nature of interest group influence in Congress. This lack in academic consensus has led to a wealth of research. This research largely focuses on one question: how and to what extent do the campaign contributions of special interest groups influence the legislative decisions and actions of individual members of Congress. In this paper I will inventory and review this research to convey as clear as possible where we are in our understanding of whether or not campaign contributions influence the decisions of individual members of the U.S. Congress and conduct a content analysis

Literature Review

The increase of Political Action Committees involvement in congressional elections have resulted in journalist, scholars and the American public growing increasingly concerned about the influence of campaign contributions by interest groups. However, whether or not campaign contributions by interest groups influence congressional decision making is still a subject of popular and academic debate. The popular perception is that a great deal of corruption arises from large contributions to candidates and political parties or from certain types of expenditures on behalf of those parties and candidates (Persily & Lammie, 2004). Sixty five percent of Americans believe that campaign contributions by special interest groups result in Member of Congress giving the contributor’s opinion special consideration because of the contribution (Smith, 2013). Figure 1 depicts the trend that as the presence and activity of interest groups increases so does public perception that government officials are crooked (Persily & Lammie, 2004), thus conveying the idea that American’s believe Congress is beholden to special interest.

Figure 1: Trends in Public Opinion of Government (1958-2002)

Similarly, journalist have argued that campaign contributions contribute to the overrepresentation of special interest in Congress at the expense of the interest of unorganized citizens (Choate, 1990; Clawson, 1992; Curtis, 1990; Drew, 1983; Smith, 1990).

However, according to several scholars popular opinion and the evidence that is presented by journalist in support of claims that campaign contributions impact Congressional policy making is seriously flawed (Smith, 1995; Souraf, 1992). As stated by Richard Smith (1995), Souraf (1992) and Edsall the research presented by journalist consists of various stories, interviews with lobbyist and members of Congress and correlation studies that do not present a causal relationship between the campaign contributions of interest groups and congressional decision making (Smith, 1995). In other words, a significant correlation between money and votes does not justify the conclusion that money buys votes and journalist failed to provide substantive evidence that suggest members of Congress would’ve voted differently if it were not for the contributions of interest groups (Thomas Stratmann, 2000).

In fact, according to several sources, when you aggregate the research the work of scholars seems to suggest that the campaign contributions of special interest groups exert far less influence over Congress than commonly thought. However because there is less consensus amongst the academic community it is difficult to formulate a firm and concise conclusion.

Moreover, this lack of academic consensus has led to a wealth of literature filled with conflicting results. Consider first the works concerning how campaign contributions effect roll call voting behavior on the House and Senate floor. On one hand you have various scholars asserting that campaign contributions by interest groups do marginally impact congressional roll-call voting behavior. For instance , a study conducted by Fleisher (1993) that analyzed how PAC contributions from defense contractors influence member’s votes for pro-defense positions on the floor showed that PAC contributions do in fact have an effect on the roll-call voting behavior of members of Congress (Fleisher, 1993). Similarly studies conducted by Stratmann (1991), Durden, Shogren and Silberman (1991) and Langbein and Lotwis (1990) all show that there’s a causal relationship between the campaign contributions of interest groups and congressional voting behavior.

However, at the other end of the spectrum you have scholars asserting the exact opposite. Scholars Chappell (1982), Grenzke (1989), and Rothenberg (1990) all report views that suggest there is no statistically significant relationship between campaign contributions and members of Congress’ roll-call voting.

However, between the two extremes lies research that purports mixed results. According to observations of Richard Smith several scholars including: Kau and Rubin (1981, 1982), Neustadl (1990) and Langbein (1993) all purport an array of results. The study conducted by Laura Langbein concludes that campaign contributions are effective primarily when the group’s ideology is consistent with the members underlying ideology and constituency. Another study conducted by Neustadl reports that the effectiveness of interest group contributions varies by the saliency of the issue.

This lack of academic consensus is visible whether one looks at the House or the senate and whether one analyzes single votes or a string of votes. So how does one overcome these discrepancies in findings? In this study I will critically analyze the research as a whole and conduct a content analysis to look for areas in which there is academic consensus and determine the conditions under which, according to scholars, campaign contributions by interest groups have the most influence on the voting behavior of members of Congress.

Data and Methods

To examine the influence of campaign contributions by interest groups on the decisions of individual member of the U.S. Congress I will analyze…x amount of sources and conduct a content analysis. A content analysis is especially appropriate for this study because it will enable me to identify common themes throughout the literature and shed light on the areas in which interest group campaign contributions can influence the decisions of individual members of Congress.


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