“Citizen and lobbyist access to Members of Congress: Who gets and who gives?”

Forthcoming in Interest Groups & Advocacy, and coauthored with Josh Brodbeck, a former undergraduate student at the University of Denver (from last century), and current University of Florida Ph.D. student, Matthew Harrigan. The advance online publication is available here.

Citizen and lobbyist access to Members of Congress: Who gets and who gives?
Josh Brodbeck, Matthew T. Harrigan, and Daniel A. Smith

Executive Summary Members of Congress grant access to outsiders as a means of alleviating uncertainty over policies and elections. For those seeking access to Congress, a key factor determining their success is the appearance of usefulness, namely, the perceived ability to provide a Member of Congress with some resource that he or she desires. These resources come in a variety of forms, including votes, campaign contributions, policy expertise and public credibility. Given these assumptions, who is granted access to Congress, and which members are more likely to grant it? Previous studies have found a direct relationship between organization or Political Action Committee (PAC) contributions and access to Members of Congress, measured by the amount of contact. Some have gone a step further, finding that, while PACs play an indisputable role in access, the real driver is constituency, or at least salience to the district or state from which the Member of Congress hails. Here, we present the results of an experiment conducted in the spring and summer of 2010, in which one of the authors called the offices of each member of the Senate, first as a private citizen and then as a registered federal lobbyist, and requested a meeting with each senator to discuss a health care bill that had been languishing in committee for some time. Unsurprisingly, the registered lobbyist experienced a clear advantage over the ordinary citizen, securing 27 meetings compared to just 7 as a citizen. The lobbyist was granted more access in other measurable categories, although party affiliation or campaign contributions had little effect. While previous studies have found strong PAC contribution and constituency effects on access, one important fact stands out from our experience: only 8 of the 100 Senate offices asked whether the lobbyist had an interest in the senator’s state, and only 4 of the 27 who granted meetings did so. Perhaps the assumption that a lobbyist, whether in- or out-of-state, is a potential source of campaign funds is strong enough to override the constituency effect, but we found no compelling evidence that membership on relevant committees or a past reliance on health sector or lobbyist contributions drove access. Rather, it appears as if ‘lobbyist’ simply works as a magic word when requesting access to a Member of Congress, with power beyond the borders of a state or district. Although the results of our experiment are limited, they do suggest that several questions about citizen and lobbyist access to Congress remain and need to be addressed, especially given the normative assumption that Members of Congress should represent the people they serve.