More than Mere Access: An Experiment on Moneyed Interests, Information Provision, and Legislative Action in Congress

Published date01 March 2023
Date01 March 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2023, Vol. 76(1) 348364
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10659129221098743
More than Mere Access: An Experiment on
Moneyed Interests, Information Provision,
and Legislative Action in Congress
Alexander C. Furnas
, Timothy M LaPira
, Alexander Hertel-Fernandez
Lee Drutman
, and Kevin Kosar
Campaign donors and corporate interests have greater access to Congress, and the legislative agenda and policy
outcomes ref‌lect their preferences. How this privileged access converts into inf‌luence remains unclear because
petitioner-legislator interactions are unobserved. In this article, we report the results of an original survey experiment of
436 congressional staffers. The vignette manipulates a petitioners identity, the substance of the request, and the
supporting evidence being offered. We test how likely staff are to take a meeting, to use the information being offered,
and to recommend taking a position consistent with the request, as well as whether they perceive the request to be
congruent with constituent preferences. Donors and lobbyists are no more likely to be granted access than constituents,
but staffers are more likely to use information and to make legislative action recommendatio ns when the information
source is an ideologically aligned think tank. Subgroup analysis suggests these effects are particularly strong among
ideological extremists and strong partisans. And, information offered by aligned think tanks are thought to be rep-
resentative of constituent opinion. Our results reveal the partisan and ideological predispositions that motivate legislative
action that is more costly than merely granting access.
congressional staff, lobbying, political information, interest groups, survey experiment
It is well established that wealthy donors and large corpo-
rations gain more access to Congress than average citizens
(Bauer, Sola Pool, and Dexter 1963;Hansen 1991;Langbein
1986;McKay 2018,2020). It is less clear how, or even if,
such privileged access yields legislative action.
Since at least Schattschneider (1960), political scien-
tists have been concerned about elite inf‌luence in repre-
sentative institutions. Recently, scholars have focused
more attention on whether out-sized economic resources
afford political actors privileged access and inf‌luence in
the policymaking process (Bartels 2008;Bowman 2020;
Gilens 2012;Grossmann and Isaac n.d.;Hacker and
Pierson 2010;Jacobs and Skocpol 2005;Lax et al.
2019;McKay 2018;Schlozman et al. 2012). While
some have questioned the relationship between economic
resources and political clout (Ansolabehere et al. 2003;
Baumgartner et al. 2009;Branham et al. 2017;Enns et al.
2014;McCarty and Rothenberg 1996;Prasad 2018;
Witko et al., 2021), other research has documented that
greater economic resources afford wealthy campaign
donors and private sector businesses more opportunities to
shape public policy (Drutman 2015;Hall and Wayman
1990;Hertel-Fernandez et al. 2018;Miler 2010;Miler
2018;McKay 2012;Kalla and Broockman 2016;Page
and Gilens 2017).
This scholarship has extended to work documenting
how political elitesincluding state legislators and senior
staff in Congressmisjudge their constituentsopinions
in ways that systematically favor concentrated economic
Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, USA
James Madison University, Harrisonburg, VA, USA
Columbia University, New York, NY, USA
New America, Washington, DC, USA
American Enterprise Institute, Washington, DC, USA
Corresponding Author:
Alexander C. Furnas, Management and Organizations Department,
Northwestern University, Chambers Hall, Evanston, IL 60208-0814,
interests (Broockman and Skovron 2018;Hertel-
Fernandez et al. 2019). These studies suggest that the
wealthy and well-organized interests enjoy greater access
because politicians incorrectly believe their self-interests
are congruent with constituentsinterests.
Yet, the process by which this unequal access converts to
policy inf‌luence is unobserved (McKay 2022). So, we de-
signed an experiment to directly test how much campaign
donors, corporate lobbyists, and consumer group lobbyists
affect legislative action in addition to seeking access alone.
Like similar experiments (Chin et al. 2000;Hertel-
Fernandez et al. 2019;Kalla and Broockman 2016), our
study tests the counterfactual that constituents are less
likely to gain access to congressional off‌ices than donors
and lobbyists. The innovation in our study is to also
measure stafferslikelihood to use information from, or to
side with, the petitioners request. Using an original
survey of over 400 DC-based congressional staffers in
2017, the vignette experiment hypothetically requests a
meeting with a member of Congresss Washington off‌ice.
The script varies the identity of the petitioner, whether
they are seeking legislation to be introduced or blocked,
and the nature of the information offered in support of the
request. The outcomes we measure include the likelihood
of taking a meeting, using the information, siding with the
petitioner, and the perception that the petitioner is rep-
resentative of geographic constituent preferences.
Thus, our outcomes measure additional, more nuanced
responses to campaign donors and lobbyists beyond merely
granting access. Seeking and gaining access has long been
considered a prerequisite condition for inf‌luencing legislation
(Austen-Smith 1995;Wright 1995). Thus, the experiment is
designed to test whether the cost of granting a constituent,
donor, or lobbyist a meeting is relatively low compared to
other actions in the legislative process. There is anecdotal
evidence that the norm in congressional off‌ices is that
members and staffers should grant meetings with as many
requests as possible as a matter of professional courtesy. For
instance, a senior policy advisor in a House membersoff‌ice
who was interviewed for this project remarks:
We try to make sure that we do a lot of stakeholder outreach.
The [member of Congress] will tell anybody whos listening
we have an open door. Werenot gatekeeping in terms of who
gets to come have meetings, who doesnt. If you reach out
and if we can f‌it it in, were going to set up a meeting for you.
The norm of having a relatively low level of scrutiny to
grant meetings is common. The default to grant access to
nearly anybody who asks is borne out in an interview with
a legislative director in a personal off‌ice for a House party
leader. In this interview, the staffer is emphasizing how
unusual the party leaderspersonal off‌ice operations are
compared to rank-and-f‌ile membersoff‌ices.
Its a leadership off‌ice, and the way we prep our member and
everything we do is in that style. This off‌ice is quite possibly one
of the most demanding, and Ive worked in a lot of different
off‌ices [] [The member of Congress] has a brief‌ing book
every single day. Shes very prepared in what she does. There
are a lot of internal meetings that have to do with her schedule,
making sure that she is where she needs to be. A lot of thought
goes into what meetings that shes taking, so things just dont
happen. There are some off‌ices where itsjustlike,Well, a
constituent just came in. Welljust put them on the scheduleor,
This looks like a good meeting for the member.None of that.
In this off‌ice specif‌ically, we have an actual, legitimate
scheduling process. We call it the rallying process. Its a form
that staff f‌ill out, and do research, and make sure that this is the
right person that she needs to be speaking with, and why it is.
These comments from senior staff do not necessarily
establish how common it is to grant access or not. But they
do suggest that measuring access alone partly ref‌lects a
meaningful political choice and partly ref‌lects a profes-
sional custom on Capitol Hill.
In addition to professional courtesy, it stands to reason that
the stakes are low when deciding to whom to grant access,
especially among staff hired in part to be the eyes and ears of
memberslegislative enterprises (Salisbury and Shepsle
1981). Legislatorstimeespecially given their limited
presence in Washingtonis pressed between committee
meetings, f‌loor voting, fundraising, media appearances, and
other events. Thus, observations of a meeting being granted
offer limited insight into legislative enterpriseschoices to
engage in more intense forms of legislative participation (Hall
1998). In this case, the costs for acting after a pitch is made
during a meeting is higher. Costs include the time and effort
to follow through, the reputation risk for recommending the
wrongposition to take, the potential publicity associated
with advocating on behalf of the interest or policy in question,
and so on. These actions are potentially more transparent to
attentive sub-constituencies, policy stakeholders, journalists,
and real and imagined political rivals. And, acting on an issue
being requested by a petitioner means not acting on hundr eds
of other possible issues, which is primarily what private
interests seek from legislators (Hall and Deardorff 2006).
The cost-benef‌it distinction between granting access
and then acting on a request is clear from two House chiefs
of staff who were lobbyists themselves prior to working in
Congress. The chief of staff in a majority membersoff‌ice
I had been [lobbying] for about three or so years, and I
realized I didnt know what happened when we left a
membersoff‌ice meeting with staff or a member of Congress.
Like, what did they do? How did they make decisions once we,
as a lobbying team, left? Because Id never worked on the Hill.
Furnas et al. 349

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