PAC Contributions and Lobbying Contacts in Congressional Committees

Article excerpt

Researchers and political observers often assume that campaign contributions help political action committees (PACs) and their affiliated lobbyists gain access to members of Congress. But empirical studies demonstrating that contributions purchase access are extremely rare. In this paper, we compare the degree to which organized interests with PACs have more contact with members of Congress than groups without an affiliated PAC, and we also identify why PAC affiliates might have an advantage in making contact. Our empirical analysis is based on data we collected from a mail survey of lobbyists involved in one of four issues, and campaign finance data we obtained from the Federal Election Commission (FEC). Our analysis indicates that PAC affiliated organizations contacted significantly more undecided committee members than nonaffiliated groups. However, this lobbying advantage derives not from PAC affiliates' contributions but from the base of support these groups have established in congressional districts around the country.

"Access. . . . It's about access. It's what I can give you. it's what can make you." (Cigarette-Smoking Man, from X-Files episode #5X20--"The End," May 17, 1998)

In the current age of public cynicism about politics, one might imagine the statement above being made by a member of Congress speaking to a lobbyist. Successful advocacy campaigns in the nation's capitol usually depend on access to lawmakers. Indeed, Cigarette-Smoking Man's account of the benefits of access is congruent with the view that is orthodox in political science today: access can make you; it is a precondition for a group to have influence over legislative decisions. But what precisely is meant by "access" and how does one gain it?

Recent work in political science emphasizes that money buys access, defined here as direct contact with a member of Congress or members of his or her staff.1 Consequently, both researchers and critics of the current system of campaign finance argue that organizations with a political action committee (PAC) enjoy greater access to members of Congress (and potentially more success in achieving their legislative objectives) than do groups that do not have a PAC. But there has been little, if any, systematic assessment of whether PAC affiliates have an advantage in contacting members of Congress and whether campaign contributions buy access to legislators.

Knowing whether PAC sponsors enjoy special access to members of Congress because of their ability to distribute campaign funds is important to our understanding of how groups with different characteristics establish contact with legislators and how reforms to the current campaign finance system may affect interest group and legislative behavior. If there is a relationship between money and access, this raises questions about the representative nature of our national legislature, especially if the sources of PAC donations rival constituent concerns when legislators decide how to allocate their time and energy in Congress (but see Chin, Bond, and Geva 2000).

In this article, we examine whether organized interests with an affiliated PAC make contact with more members of Congress than do non-affiliated groups, and we also identify why PAC affiliates might have an advantage in making these contacts. The empirical analysis we present is based on data we collected through a mail survey about committee-level lobbying on four issues in the 104th Congress, and campaign finance data we obtained from the Federal Election Commission (FEC). The results of our analysis demonstrate that PAC-affiliated organizations contacted more committee members-particularly undecided legislators-than did non-affiliated groups. We also offer evidence that this advantage derives primarily from the organizational presence of PAC-affiliated groups in a relatively diverse array of congressional districts. Once we control for district ties, we see that contributions play, at best, a very small role in providing PAC affiliates with a means of accessing members of Congress. …