Campaign Contributions and Access to Congressional Offices: Patterns in Foreign Lobbying Data

AuthorHuchen Liu
Published date01 September 2022
Date01 September 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
© 2021 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10659129211029711
Although access to government officials alone has little
intrinsic value to interest groups, it opens the door to
influencing officials’ much more consequential actions,
starting with the drafting and committee markup of legis-
lative bills (Hall and Wayman 1990). Access is a scarce
resource; groups looking for access to Congress encoun-
ter members who give it rarely and selectively (Hall
1998; Kalla and Broockman 2016; Langbein 1986).
Legislators’ limited time and staff favor access seekers
who have something to give in return. To succeed in their
job, legislators need two assets: electoral support (includ-
ing campaign contributions) and policy-relevant informa-
tion. They give access disproportionately to those who
can supply these assets by relying on a useful heuristic:
give access to those who have given campaign contribu-
tions before. An obvious reason for such a rule of thumb
is that legislators need campaign funds to get reelected
(Box-Steffensmeier 1996; Gerber 2004; Jacobson and
Carson 2019), and the reward of access helps keep the
money flowing. Another reason, however, is that contri-
butions can signal donors’ possession of electorally ben-
eficial information (Austen-Smith 1995).
It follows that lobbyists should contribute to legisla-
tors whom they wish to contact in the future, a simple
strategic prescription that mirrors legislators’ rule of giv-
ing access to donors. Unfortunately, attempts to get
access to legislators are rarely observed. Consequently,
existing research on the relationship between campaign
contributions and access-seeking tends to either assume
that lobbyists or interest groups want access or, in some
way, infer whether they want access based on their innate
types and missions (Ansolabehere, Snyder, and Tripathi
2002; Fouirnaies and Hall 2014, 2015, 2018; McKay
2018; Powell and Grimmer 2016).1
In this study, I use novel data on foreign entities’ lob-
bying activity in the United States to examine the link
between contributions and access. The Foreign Agent
Registration Act of 1938 (FARA) provides a legal chan-
nel for foreign governmental and non-governmental enti-
ties to lobby the U.S. government through U.S.-based
lobbyists. FARA requires lobbyists to disclose to the
Department of Justice their contact with U.S. government
officials and campaign contributions they make, as well
as the officials these activities involve. This requirement,
in turn, allows me to collect data to analyze how contri-
butions relate to contact with officials.
29711PRQXXX10.1177/10659129211029711Political Research QuarterlyLiu
1Princeton University, NJ, USA
Corresponding Author:
Huchen Liu, Department of Politics, Princeton University, 001 Fisher
Hall, Princeton, NJ 08544, USA.
Campaign Contributions and
Access to Congressional Offices:
Patterns in Foreign Lobbying Data
Huchen Liu1
Do lobbyists contribute money to legislators to build relationships in government? I show that lobbyists deploy
resources strategically to get access to officials by analyzing newly available data on foreign lobbying in the U.S.
government from 1998 to 2019, which contain information on lobbyists’ campaign contributions and contact with
officials. Using supervised machine learning models, I identify lobbyist requests for access to members of Congress and
classify them as either successful or unsuccessful. The data show that lobbyists request access almost exclusively to
legislators to whom they made campaign contributions. Furthermore, lobbyists who contributed money to legislators
are more likely to gain access to them than lobbyists who did not, but only if the legislators are ideologically similar
and in the same party. While the data and research design I employ do not allow me to infer causal influence of
contributions on access, these results suggest that lobbyists make contributions to foster an environment conducive
to contact with like-minded officials.
campaign contributions, access, foreign lobbying
2022, Vol. 75(3) 812–828
Liu 813
The data contain previously untapped information on
both lobbyists’ requests for access and the outcomes of
these requests. Using supervised machine learning mod-
els, I classify foreign agents’ requests for access to legis-
lators as successful or unsuccessful based on key words
in thousands of foreign lobbying reports from 1998 to
2019. I first show that campaign contributions are very
strongly and positively related to requests for access.
Conditional on requesting access, I then show that con-
tributions are strongly and positively related to success
in getting access to a congressional office. Adding to
these main findings, I show that donors have an easier
time getting access to legislators themselves rather than
their staff, which constitutes a greater commitment of
time and attention by legislators. Last, ideology mediates
the relationship between contributions and access: The
link between the two behaviors is limited to ideological
allies. Important to note, the nature of the data and
research design I employ does not allow me to infer any
causal influence of contributions on lobbyists’ ability to
get access. The patterns of money and contact that I
uncover, however, suggest that lobbyists use campaign
contributions to maintain relationships with like-minded
Campaign Contributions and Access
to Legislators
Lobbying is widely construed to as the transfer of infor-
mation from organized interests to government officials
(Austen-Smith 1995; de Figueiredo and Richter 2014;
Lohmann 1995). The transfer of information requires lob-
byists to contact and get access to officials. But all those
who want access to officials do not receive it; the demand
for access simply exceeds the supply. Members of
Congress regularly decide how much to participate in
various activities that demand their attention, including
direct communication with the public, and often the deci-
sion is to not participate at all (Hall 1998). In the late
1970s, the institution’s own Obey Commission found that
the average Representative spent just 1.1 percent of his or
her workweek meeting with interest group representa-
tives (Langbein 1986). In a recent experiment, congres-
sional staffers gave access to letter writers who requested
it less than 30 percent of the time (Kalla and Broockman
For organized interests, legislators do not give them
access randomly or on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Instead, who is asking matters greatly; legislators allocate
access based on their expectations about the benefits they
stand to gain from contact, measured in the two things
that the groups can offer—electoral support and policy-
making information. Electoral support, in turn, primarily
consists of campaign contributions,2 as money is critical
for reelection. For vulnerable incumbents, campaign
spending can be decisive in securing reelection (Caughey
and Sekhon 2011). For secure incumbents, a plentiful
“war chest” helps deter high-quality challengers (Box-
Steffensmeier 1996). Knowing the importance of money,
incumbents naturally hope that some people they meet
with will return the favor financially.
Legislators have long needed policymaking informa-
tion from organized interests such as draft legislation,
research support, and strategic planning (Ainsworth 1997;
Bauer, Pool, and Dexter 1963). Due to declining legisla-
tive capacity in Congress, reliance on outside expertise
has increased (LaPira and Thomas 2017). Direct contact
with interest groups gives legislators increasingly neces-
sary policy input. As discussed below, campaign contribu-
tions can help legislators distinguish helpful input from
harmful input.
Legislators’ essential calculation for determining
whether to give access to an interest group is whether the
expected gain in campaign contributions and policy input
exceeds the associated cost of legislative resources—
including time—and the opportunity cost of not spending
those resources doing other work or meeting with others
instead. Because the decision to give access involves an
educated guess, legislators’ perceptions of access seekers
are key, and only people who gain mental access to cog-
nitively constrained legislators can receive substantive
representation (Miler 2010). One shortcut can substan-
tially streamline legislators’ guesswork regarding access
seekers’ potential offerings: favor those who have con-
tributed before.
Access can serve as a “positive reinforcement” of
sorts for contributing; by rewarding past donors with
access, legislators can encourage continued giving. Of
course, legislators should not abuse this kind of reward,
giving donors token access purely to lure continued con-
tributions while having no inclination to truly value their
input or comply with their wishes. The vigilant donor
can hold the deceitful legislator accountable by halting
the flow of money. Skeptical that interest groups and leg-
islators can reliably forge long-lasting bonds, McCarty
and Rothenberg (1996) suggest that organized interests
in fact have the upper hand in dealing with legislators
amid commitment problems.
The relationship between organized interests and leg-
islators, however, appears largely congenial: Exchanges
of interest groups’ resources (campaign funds and policy-
making information) and legislators’ resources (access
and votes) occur much more between allies than between
adversaries (Hall and Deardorff 2006; Kollman 1997).
The hypothetical above of a legislator stringing a donor
along to extract contributions is implausible not only

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