Congress is not so easily 'bought'

July 31, 2003

Contrary to popular belief and typical media portrayals, big campaign contributions and lobbying do not necessarily win the political influence that determines votes in the U.S. Congress. Congressional action is less a function of donations and lobbying than it is of public opinion, ideology, and party affiliation, according to University of Washington sociology professor Paul Burstein, whose work provides insights into the legislative process.

In the summer 2003 issue of Contexts magazine, published by the American Sociological Association, Burstein reports on research that undermines the pervasive cynicism cultivated by the mass media and citizens' "common sense" perceptions. While most Americans believe that the government is run for the interests of a few rather than for the benefit of all, most major studies show that money and special interest groups have little influence on policy.

The effect of campaign contributions and lobbying is often limited for several reasons: PAC campaign contributions are not large relative to total campaign expenditures; there are so many lobbyists that most cannot gain access to members of Congress, much less influence them; and the number of members actually influenced by contributions and lobbying is often too small to determine the outcome of key votes.

In the 1999-2000 election cycle, presidential and congressional candidates spent a total of $3 billion and only one-third of that amount derived from interest groups. Burstein points out that among the nation's 4,500 PACs, the average PAC donation to each candidate they aided was $1,700. While admitting this is not a trivial amount, Burstein believes it is not likely enough to win tremendous influence, considering the context: the average House candidate spent $700,000 and the typical Senate candidate spent $5.7 million on their 2000 campaigns. Even if contributions help gain access to congressional members, does that access translate to sufficient influence to advance a cause in Congress?

The Congressional Quarterly's list of 2002 "key votes"--the votes that, in the editors' opinion, determined the outcome of the most important and controversial issues Congress addressed--listed 11 votes in the House and 13 in the Senate. Burstein notes, "What was most striking about many of the votes was how often they were almost entirely along party lines." For example, in the recent House vote on prescription drug benefits, only 16 of the 427 voting members crossed party lines. In the Senate vote on oil drilling in the Artic National Wildlife Refuge, 13 of 99 crossed party lines. The Democratic members who crossed party lines on the wildlife preservation vote were known for having more conservative voting records on issues of conservation, and the Republican members were from New England states with more liberal constituents.

"Party and ideology matter far more than campaign contributions and lobbying... The power of interest groups to get legislators to change their votes in the face of personal ideology and party commitments is real but very limited," wrote Burstein.

The impact of public opinion, too, is often far greater than the impact of lobbying. When organizations spend millions of dollars to influence public opinion--as they did on the Clinton health care plan, for example--"perhaps that is because they see public opinion as the prime mover behind policy change," concluded Burstein. Burstein realizes that these findings go against popular conceptions of the legislative process. But people are often mistaken about who holds power, because they tend to remember egregious examples of interest group powers; cannot sort out the multiple influences on policy change; and assume their own policy preferences are those of the majority. They often think that if the government isn't doing what they want, it must be giving in to special interests--but that's not necessarily the case.
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