Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

PACs, Issue Context, and Congressional Decisionmaking

Academic journal article Political Research Quarterly

PACs, Issue Context, and Congressional Decisionmaking

Article excerpt

Scholars have claimed that PAC influence on congressional behavior is more likely on certain types of issues. After considering both roll-call voting and committee participation, I argue that the conditions making PAC influence on voting most likely make influence on participation least likely, and vice versa. The analysis of 20 legislative proposals indicates that PACs are able to influence voting on non-ideological/non-visible issues, but are more likely to influence participation on ideological/visible issues. Unlike previous studies, these findings demonstrate that PACs can influence behavior across different contexts, but that the route to influence differs depending on the type of issue being considered.

Political scientists have devoted substantial attention to the study of how PAC contributions influence legislative behavior and public policy. Despite this attention, our knowledge of precisely when and how PACs influence behavior remains limited. Baumgartner and Leech (1998) describe the literature as a "maze of contradictions," and claim that this confusion results from a failure to consider how the context may limit or enhance PAC influence. There is, however, a growing body of literature that considers the conditionality of PAC influence (Davis 1993; Evans 1986; Fleisher 1993; Gordon 2001; Neustadtl 1990). Unfortunately, these studies have focused on roll-call voting to the exclusion of other forms of legislative behavior. Considering the importance of non-voting forms of committee behavior (Hall and Wayman 1990), this is a serious limitation.

Based primarily on roll-call analysis, most scholars have concluded that PACs are influential on non-ideological, non-visible issues (Gordon 2001; Neustadtl 1990; Wright 1985). The assumption has been that members of Congress are more likely to sell or trade behavior when public scrutiny and party involvement are low. However, Hall and Wayman (1990) argue that PACs are able to influence committee participation on high salience issues. At first glance, it may seem puzzling that PACs would be able to influence committee behavior when they are unable to influence rollcall voting, but a closer examination of member decisionmaking reveals that precisely the conditions that make influence on voting likely, make influence on participation unlikely, and vice versa.

This article begins with a brief review of the relevant PAC studies and an explanation of why PAC influence on roll-call voting and committee effort is constrained by the legislative context. Specifically, I discuss why the conditions that allow for maximum influence on voting (effort) constrain the ability of PACs to influence effort (voting). Then, 1 present the results of the empirical analysis of the relationship between PAC contributions and legislative behavior. PAC influence on both voting and committee effort is analyzed on 20 issues-10 are ideological and visible, and 10 are non-ideological, and non-visible. This examination of legislative extremes allows for a clear test of the limits of PAC influence on decisionmaking. Finally, I discuss the implications of these results for our understanding of PAC influence on public policy.


Most scholars agree that, at minimum, PAC contributions allow organized interests to gain access to important decisionmaking, providing the opportunity to present their case to legislators (Clawson, Neustadtl and Weller 1998; Langbein 1986). There is substantial disagreement over whether and how this access may translate into influence on behavior, however. Baumgartner and Leech (1998) express frustration that, despite the large number of studies of PAC influence, our knowledge of when and how PACs influence legislative behavior is limited. For example, some scholars have found that PACs influence floor voting (Frendreis and Waterman 1985; Langbein and Lotwis 1990; Stratmann 1991; 1995; Wilhite and Thielman 1987), while others have reached the opposite conclusion (Wright 1985; Grenzke 1989; Bronars and Lott 1997; Wawro 2001). …

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