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A new experiment shows how money buys access to Congress

A new paper just released today by two political science graduate students, David Broockman and Josh Kalla, is already getting attention.  The paper reports perhaps the first field experiment on whether the offices of members of Congress are more likely to grant access to contributors than other types of people.  See my Post colleague Matea Gold’s piece here.  I also spoke with David and Josh via e-mail.  A lightly edited version of our exchange is below.

Q: You set out to study whether campaign donors are more able to get access to senior congressional officials.  Tell us how you went about it.

A: In the study, 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 that individuals who would attend the meetings were “local campaign donors” or “local constituents.”

Q: And what did you find?

A: 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. Changing these two words in the meeting request yielded a more than three-fold increase in access to senior officials. 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.

Q: So when members’ offices were told that “campaign donors” wanted to meet, you didn’t actually refer to them as donors *to* that particular member, correct? 

A: That is correct, and it’s important for the experiment’s interpretation and implications. The linchpin of the Supreme Court majority’s reasoning in Citizens United v. FEC is that legislators would not privilege individuals’ requests because they have given to other political entities. If the Court was right that legislators do not grant preferential treatment to individuals because they have donated to campaigns in general, we should not have seen legislators in the experiment granting preferential treatment to individuals because their contributed to campaigns.

A recent paper by Justin Fox and Lawrence Rothenberg explains why legislators might grant preferential treatment to individuals who have not given to them directly. For example, a legislator may work to maintain support from someone who has previously contributed to her opponent in order to discourage him from doing so again; or, a legislator may work to win a contribution from someone who she knows gives to other legislators like her. It is just such behavior that the experiment appears to have observed.

Q: A skeptic might say, “Duh, we know that money drives politics.”  Why is an experiment like this even necessary?

A: Understanding whether campaign donations influence legislators has challenged generations of social scientists, and there are passionate advocates on both sides of the debate. However, the sizable literature’s principal conclusion has been that the available evidence is insufficient for assessing the impact of contributions. For 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? Consistent with these difficulties, efforts to assess the effects of contributions on politicians’ behavior are notorious for yielding inconsistent results.

Experiments help break this impasse because we can rule out the alternative explanation that legislators would make decisions their contributors like regardless of whether their contributors had given, much like how a medical trial can isolate the impact of a drug separate from a patient’s preexisting medical condition. As we already mentioned, such evidence matters because it informs ongoing legislative and judicial debates. For example, in a pending case, McCutcheon v. FEC, the Supreme Court will rule on the constitutionality of contribution limits.

 Q: Here’s a graph with the main results from the paper.  Walk us through it.

The graph shows the percentage of meetings in each experimental condition that occurred with congressional staff at each level. In the “Revealed Donor” condition the meeting request revealed to Congressional offices that the attendees were donors, while in the “Constituent” condition the attendees were described as constituents only. The differences between the bars at each level illustrate the comparative success in securing meetings with an official at that level. So, for example, 8 percent of the time when the group revealed the attendees to be donors, congressional offices arranged a meeting with the Member of Congress, but when they were not revealed to be donors the attendees only secured such meetings 2 percent of the time. Focusing on the right of the graph, it is clear that senior officials made themselves available much more often when the attendees were revealed to be donors.

Q: This experiment sort of sounds like you were using members of Congress as guinea pigs.  How do you think about the ethics of that?

A: Advocacy organizations, campaigns, corporations, and even politicians themselves are constantly trying to learn how to be more effective – for example, the Obama campaign tested e-mail subject lines to stimulate fundraising and companies routinely experiment with prices to estimate consumer demand. We don’t think such efforts surprise anyone. Likewise, this experiment provides useful data to advocacy organizations about how to gain access to senior policymakers.

We also don’t think Members of Congress were used like guinea pigs. There was nothing artificial and no deception. All the meetings were real and part of an organization’s attempt to build support for its agenda in Congress and all the attendees were actual donors.

Q: How might people over-interpret your findings?  What kinds of cautionary notes or caveats do you think are appropriate?

A: There are definitely a few caveats worth bearing in mind.

First, we don’t know why senior policymakers are more likely to accept meetings with people because they have donated. It could be that congressional officials want to keep individuals happy from whom they can raise money, but it could also be that they expect donors to be more informed, more likely to vote, or something else. Future research can examine this. However, the fact that legislators privilege requests from individuals because they have donated has social consequences regardless of why they do so.

Second, the experiment does not necessarily speak to the impacts of campaign donations in every conceivable situation.  We have studied one group’s efforts on one issue. There are also many other ways legislators might learn of individuals’ contribution history. For example, donors often give large checks to legislators face-to-face. We doubt that the large differences we uncovered here would be smaller in such situations, but further research is needed. We’ve only examined one part of the broad world of campaign finance.

Finally, although we can conclude that senior congressional officials on average made themselves more available to individuals because they donated, we can’t point to any particular legislator and conclude that they provided greater access because the attendees were donors, just like how doctors can’t tell which particular patients in a medical trial were saved by a new drug.

Q: What does your research tell us about the quality of American democracy?  Should it make us more concerned?

A: The results are clearly concerning. Most Americans can’t afford to contribute to campaigns in meaningful amounts, while those who can have very different priorities than the broader public. Concern that campaign donations facilitate the wealthy’s well-documented greater influence with legislators has long inspired reformers to make changes to the system of campaign finance. Our results support their concerns. If legislators are surrounding themselves with individuals who can afford to donate, they’re going to receive a distorted portrait of the public’s priorities and hear a distorted set of arguments about what is best for the country.

At the same time, we should also note that campaign finance is far from the only phenomena worthy of reformers’ attention. For example, Richard Hall and Alan Deardorff’s work shows that lobbying can move Congress’ focus and effort towards problems that concern the wealthy, even if legislators never alter their positions.  And, as Jacob Hacker has argued, this might allow policies important to the middle class to stagnate and degrade. Addressing issues like these will require reforming more than campaign finance.