Political Science The Impact of Campaign Contributions on Congressional Behavior
Christopher Witko
  • LAST REVIEWED: 04 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 November 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0118


How campaign contributions influence the behavior of members of Congress is an important question with theoretical and normative implications for our understanding of congressional decision making, interest-group influence, and participation in the less frequently studied nonvoting forms of political behavior and how economic inequalities may translate into inequalities in the system of representation. To answer this question, social scientists (mostly in political science, economics, and sociology) have first tried to understand what interest groups are attempting to accomplish with their donations by studying which types of individuals and interests are most likely to contribute and the pattern of their donations. They have also directly examined the relationship between contributions and various types of behavior. Though most campaign contributions actually come from individual citizens, there is relatively little research into the motivations of individual donors or the effect that individual donations may have on behavior. This likely reflects that, rightly or wrongly, critics are less troubled by individual contributions than those from wealthy “special interests.” Thus this article focuses mostly on the intentions underlying and the effect of contributions from organized interests, which are studied more often.

General Overviews

These works (or parts of these works) provide good overviews of the literature on the effect of campaign contributions on behavior. Baumgartner and Leech 1998 provides a table summarizing the results of dozens of studies of the effect of campaign contributions on congressional behavior. Roscoe and Jenkins 2005 reviews the literature and conducts a meta-analysis of the effect of campaign contributions. Ginsberg and Green 1986 discusses the various pathways by which money may influence members of Congress. Sabato 1985 provides a good, early qualitative understanding of how political action committees (PACs) operate. Sorauf 1984 and Sorauf 1992 also provide a descriptive understanding of PACs and campaign contributing more generally and raise some important normative concerns. Stratmann 2005 provides a good literature review of many questions of concern for students of campaign contributions. Milyo, et al. 2000 argues that campaign contributions do not constitute a great deal of money compared to other expenditures and are thus perhaps not much to worry about.

Reference Works and Data Sources

Since the late 1970s, the Federal Election Commission has collected and reported contributions to members of Congress, but prior to this time there was no single, systematic database of campaign contributions. Gathering data prior to this period requires accessing original campaign finance records from the donors, candidates, or committees. Government entities (e.g., congressional committees investigating particular elections or donors) sporadically collected data. Herbert Alexander did more early work on this question than anyone else, as seen in Alexander and Fischer 1974, Alexander 1972, Alexander and Jones 1972, and Alexander and Jones 1971. In these periodic volumes, Alexander presents campaign finance data from previous elections and discusses the funding of those elections in detail. Lubenow 2001 discusses many aspects of campaign finance. The Federal Election Commission’s Campaign Finance Reports and Data page contains itemized contributions for all committee contributions and all individual contributions above $200 dating back to the 1979–1980 election cycle.

Theoretical Views

Most studies of campaign contributions from organized interests view contributions as part of an exchange relationship whereby contributors provide money in exchange for some policy benefit, much like any other type of market exchange stemming from early work by scholars such as Stigler 1971. But there is significant variation in the nature of this exchange according to different scholars. Some, including James Snyder (Snyder 1990), take the view that rather than discrete exchange there is a long-term investment in politicians, but others have argued that it is difficult to enforce these market “contracts” whether short or long term (McCarty and Rothenberg 1996)). Another variation on the exchange theme is that contributions should be viewed as gifts among friends rather than simple purchases (Clawson, et al. 1992). Others have argued that rather than a mutually beneficial voluntary exchange, the contribution relationship may more accurately be viewed as extortion (McChesney 1997)). Still others have taken the view that campaign contributions are not seeking particularized benefits but should rather be viewed as expressive political behavior, like voting (Ansolabehere, et al. 2003)). This latter view seems most appropriate for ideologically motivated individual contributors rather than organized interests, however. Even in an analysis of corporate chief executives (CEOs), Gordon, et al. 2007 argues that contributions are attempts to buy goodwill with the expectation of some future policy benefit and not mere consumption.

Motivations of Individual Donors

Knowing what motivates political actors to contribute to members of Congress is an important first step in determining how campaign contributions influence congressional behavior because it is most likely that members of Congress would provide the benefits that contributors desire if there is an exchange relationship. Despite the fact that the majority of contributions to members of Congress come from individual donors, relatively few studies examine what motivates these individuals and what they are seeking with their donations. On balance it seems clear that most individuals support candidates because they share their ideological views rather than for more instrumental purposes, because donors tend to be highly ideological compared to the nondonating mass public. One effect this may have on behavior is to encourage members of Congress to be more ideologically extreme, which can lead to greater polarization, as discussed in Ensley 2009; Francia, et al. 2005; and La Raja and Wiltse 2012. A small subset of donors, such as corporate CEOs, probably have mixed motives for contributing to candidates—they are motivated by a desire for particularized benefits from government for their firm but are simultaneously expressing their preferences just like any other citizen, as discussed in Burris 2001.

Contributions and the Buying of Access

Corporations and business interests are the most numerous type of organized interest. Most scholars agree that, in recent years, firms pursue access to influential members of both parties of Congress rather than seek to influence specific votes. Early on, studies such as Herndon 1982 noted that safe incumbents raise more money. A number of studies, such as Grier and Munger 1986, Cox and Magar 1999, and Rudolph 1999, also find that members of the majority party raise more money. The importance of incumbency, party, and committee membership as predictors of donation patterns indicates an access strategy in the interest group system because incumbents in the majority party on important committees can provide more benefits to donors. In contrast to business, Gopoian 1984 finds that labor unions and many ideological groups generally demonstrate loyalty to one party or the other.

Committee Membership and Donation Decisions

Esterling 2007; Grier and Munger 1991; Grier and Munger 1993; Kroszner and Stratmann 2005; Poole, et al. 1987; and Romer and Snyder 1994 find that the type of committee on which a member serves is an important predictor of the contributions it receives. Specifically, members who serve on committees targeted by business receive more money.

Buying Party Control of Congress

A number of scholars have argued (e.g., Evans 1988)) that, as opposed or in addition to taking the composition of Congress as a given, some contributors seek to assist the electoral efforts of their preferred party or candidate. Though this is typically thought to be the case for ideological interests, some scholars argue that business has a preference for one party or the other even though it contributes to both parties (Brunnell 2005, Burris 1987, Neustadtl and Clawson 1988)). If most organized interests seek to influence elections, the implication for congressional behavior is that money should not lead to any unpredictable changes in behavior because interests are simply selecting candidates that agree with them already. According to Levitt 1998, this electoral route of influence is important. If, as Magee 2002 has found, donors respond with contributions to candidates who share their policy preferences, it is possible that parties develop their agendas to be attractive to donors, as Ferguson 1995 argues. McCarty and Rothenberg 2000 shows that even if interest groups are seeking to influence legislative outcomes rather than elections, the electoral needs of members of Congress shape their behavior.

  • Brunnell, Thomas L. “The Relationship between Political Parties and Interest Groups: Explaining Patterns of PAC Contributions to Candidates for Congress.” Political Research Quarterly 58.4 (2005): 681–688.

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    Brunnell shows that corporations provide money to Democrats in such a way as to minimize positive electoral impact and to Republicans to maximize positive electoral impact.

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  • Burris, Val. “The Political Partisanship of American Business: A Study of Corporate Political Action Committees.” American Sociological Review 52.6 (1987): 732–744.

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    Burris examines why some corporations are partisan (i.e., prefer one party) while others are bipartisan.

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  • Evans, Diana. “Oil PACs and Aggressive Contribution Strategies.” Journal of Politics 50.4 (1988): 1047–1056.

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    Evans shows that even within an industry that heavily favors the Republican Party there is substantial variation in contributing behavior.

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  • Ferguson, Thomas. Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

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    Ferguson argues that parties structure their agendas in order to attract money from major donors. The implication is that the agendas of both parties reflect the needs of wealthy interests rather than the public.

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  • Levitt, Stephen D. “Are PACs Trying to Influence Politicians of Voters?” Economics & Politics 10.1 (1998): 19–35.

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    The author develops a model indicating that the benefits of influencing elections are underestimated by interest groups, and the empirical analysis suggests that groups do value elections almost as much as vote buying.

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  • Magee, Christopher S. P. “Do Political Action Committees Give Money to Candidates for Electoral or Influence Motives?” Public Choice 112.3–4 (2002): 373–399.

    DOI: 10.1023/A:1019935524261Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The author finds that contributions to challengers can be very beneficial and, because these contributions are driven by policy stances (as opposed to actual policy favors), the electoral route of influence is important.

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  • McCarty, Noland, and Lawrence S. Rothenberg. “The Time to Give: PAC Motivations and Electoral Timing.” Political Analysis 8.3 (2000): 239–259.

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    McCarty and Rothenberg show that short-term election-related factors, such as the competitiveness of particular electoral contests, drives the timing of political action committee (PAC) contributions, rather than the desire of members of Congress for early money to deter potential challengers. They argue that in order to receive early money, members of Congress would have to provide much additional access to interest groups, and they are generally unwilling to do so.

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  • Neustadtl, Alan, and Dan Clawson. “Corporate Political Groupings: Does Ideology Unify Business Political Behavior?” American Sociological Review 53.2 (1988): 172–190.

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    The authors look at the divisions in support in the business community for conservative candidates in the 1980 election.

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Contributions as Carrots and Sticks

If organized interests reward or punish members of Congress based on their behavior, this would provide evidence that they expect the recipients of their contributions to engage in certain behaviors. Francia 2001; Jackson and Engel 2003; and Poole, et al. 1987 consider the extent to which PACs reward and punish members of Congress for their positions and votes on particular issues. Gordon and Hafer 2007 considers how the need or potential to raise money from regulated industries may affect the level of government regulation.

Methodological Challenges

Endogeneity and simultaneity bias makes inferring any causal effect of contributions on behavior difficult. Regarding endogeneity, many of the most important factors that drive member behavior (such as partisanship/ideology and constituency interest) also drive contributor decisions. Thus including each of these types of variables in the same equation can lead to biased estimates of the effect of campaign contributions and other factors. A number of scholars have used an instrumental-variables approach to address this problem in an attempt to estimate unbiased effects of campaign contributions (Chappell 1981, Chappell 1982,). Ansolabehere, et al. 2003 (cited under Theoretical Views) presents a table summarizing the results of a number of studies and finds that campaign contributions influence voting on only about one-fourth of votes. It does not appear that there is much difference in the effect of money depending on whether an instrumental variable approach is used, however. Concerns about simultaneity reflect that although contributions can influence behavior, behavior also influences contributions (Bronars and Lott 1997)). In recent years some scholars (see Wawro 2001)) have begun to use temporal ordering to rule out this source of simultaneity bias. Another problem in political action committee (PAC) studies is the potential for omitted variable bias. It is likely that unobserved factors (e.g., individual views developed due to one’s circumstances growing up) influence voting and the relationships that members of Congress have with, and the contributions they receive from, different organized interests. Even the most sophisticated modeling approach cannot easily address this issue simply because these variables are unobserved. Therefore, more recent studies, such as Stratmann 2002 and Wawro 2001, have creatively used changes in voting across issues or over time to establish causality. This allows one to estimate models with member fixed effects or to examine only members who changed their votes over time. Finally, at least one study (Chin, et al. 2000) has utilized an experimental design to seek to overcome these inferential problems. Because even some of the most methodologically advanced studies, such as Stratmann 2002, find some effect for campaign contributions, it seems reasonable to conclude that contributions do have some effect on congressional behavior, though it is inconsistent across issues.

  • Bronars, Stephen G., and John R. Lott Jr. “Do Campaign Donations Alter How a Politician Votes? Or, Do Donors Support Candidates Who Value the Same Things That They Do?” Journal of Law and Economics 40.2 (1997): 317–350.

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    This study examines the direction of causality between money and votes by considering how members change their behavior prior to retirement when they do not need additional campaign money.

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  • Chappell, Henry W., Jr. “Campaign Contributions and Voting on the Cargo Preference Bill: A Comparison of Simultaneous Models.” Public Choice 36.2 (1981): 301–312.

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    The author examines how the inferences regarding the influence of campaign contributions on a cargo preference bill depend on the type of statistical model estimated.

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  • Chappell, Henry W., Jr. “Campaign Contributions and Congressional Voting: A Simultaneous Probit-Tobit Model.” Review of Economics and Statistics 64.1 (1982): 77–83.

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    Chappell is one of the first scholars to address the simultaneity/endogeneity problems in examining how contributions influence behavior with a more sophisticated modeling approach.

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  • Chin, Michelle L., Jon R. Bond, and Nehemia Geva. “A Foot in the Door: An Experimental Study of PAC and Constituency Effects on Access.” Journal of Politics 62.2 (2000): 534–549.

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    The authors use an interesting experimental approach to try to overcome the endogeneity problem.

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  • Kalla, Joshua L., and David E. Broockman. “Campaign Contributions Facilitate Access to Congressional Officials: A Randomized Field Experiment.” American Journal of Political Science. Early View (2015).

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    The authors worked with a political organization to try to schedule meetings with 191 members of Congress, and randomized whether they mentioned that they were contributors to the members’ campaigns. They found that mentioning the contribution increased the likelihood of being granted a meeting.

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  • Stratmann, Thomas. “Can Special Interests Buy Congressional Votes? Evidence from Financial Services Legislation.” Journal of Law and Economics 45.2 (2002): 345–373.

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    In this article Stratmann discusses how the fact that Congress considers similar legislation repeatedly can be used to isolate the effect of money on votes by allowing one to use member-fixed effects or by examining the behavior of those members who switched votes. Using this approach, he finds that campaign contributions do influence voting on financial services legislation.

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  • Wawro, Gregory. “A Panel Probit Analysis of Campaign Contributions and Roll-Call Votes.” American Journal of Political Science 45.3 (2001): 563–579.

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    This study uses longitudinal data to establish causal ordering and finds that PAC contributions do not influence roll-call voting.

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The Effect on Domestic Economic Policy Votes

Based on the studies above it seems that most contributors are driven by a desire to gain access to powerful decision makers or support members who share a similar ideology rather than to influence roll-call voting. Nevertheless, because the earliest studies of the effect of contributions on behavior preceded many of the studies cited above and because it is relatively easy to collect campaign contribution and roll-call data, even after these findings were well known, a large number of campaign contribution studies continued to examine congressional roll-call voting. The results of these studies are highly mixed. A large number of roll-call voting studies focus on economic issues; Frendreis and Waterman 1985; Silberman and Durden 1976; Wilhite 1988; Saltzman 1987; Wright 1985; Wilhite and Thielmann 1987; and Mian, et al. 2010 find an effect. In contrast, Grenzke 1989 finds no such effect.

The Effect on International Trade Voting

A number of studies have examined the effect of campaign contributions on voting on trade policy. Baldwin and Magee 2000 and Coughlin 1985 find that contributions affect trade policy voting, but Devault 2010 finds that campaign contributions play a relatively modest role.

The Effect on Other Types of Issues

Though the largest number of roll-call studies focuses on economic issues, a number of studies have examined other issues, including foreign affairs (e.g., Berger 2012, a study of foreign aid, and Rubenzer 2011, a study of votes on US policy toward Cuba). Other studies have examined domestic policy, for example, Langbein and Lotwis 1990 and Langbein 1993 on voting on gun control policy, Wright 1998 on the effect of campaign contributions on tobacco policy votes, and Durden, et al. 1991 on strip-mining legislation.

  • Berger, Lars. “Guns, Butter, and Human Rights: The Congressional Politics of U.S. Aid to Egypt.” American Politics Research 40.4 (2012): 603–635.

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    This study examines how contributions from the defense industry influence roll-call votes on aid to Egypt and demonstrates that more defense industry contributions are associated with more pro-Egypt aid voting.

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  • Durden, Garey C., Jason F. Shogren, and Jonathan I. Silberman. “The Effects of Interest Group Pressure on Coal Strip-Mining Legislation.” Social Science Quarterly 72.2 (1991): 239–250.

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    The authors examine coal-mining legislation and find that contributions from the mining industry influence voting.

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  • Langbein, Laura I. “PACs, Lobbies, and Political Conflict: The Case of Gun Control.” Public Choice 77.3 (1993): 551–572.

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    Again, the author distinguishes the effect of campaign contributions from that of lobbying on gun control issues.

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  • Langbein, Laura I., and Mark A. Lotwis. “The Political Efficacy of Lobbying and Money: Gun Control in the U.S. House, 1986.” Legislative Studies Quarterly 15.3 (1990): 413–440.

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    This is one of the few studies to control for lobbying while examining campaign contributions. The authors conclude that contributions influenced voting.

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  • Rubenzer, Trevor. “Campaign Contributions and U.S. Foreign Policy Outcomes: An Analysis of Cuban American Interests.” American Journal of Political Science 55.1 (2011): 105–116.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-5907.2010.00483.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The author shows that campaign contributions from interest groups influence behavior on Cuba-related votes.

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  • Wright, John R. “Tobacco Industry PACs and the Nation’s Health: A Second Opinion.” In The Interest Group Connection: Electioneering, Lobbying, and Policymaking in Washington. Edited by Paul S. Herrnson, Ronald G. Shaiko, and Clyde Wilcox, 174–195. Chatham, NJ: Chatham House, 1998.

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    This chapter examines how money from tobacco political action committees influenced voting on this issue. Wright finds that party and constituency factors have a much larger impact on voting on tobacco issues than money from tobacco companies, though the latter do have some modest effect on voting.

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Campaign Contributions and Aggregate Policy Outcomes

Most studies consider how campaign contributions influence discrete votes or decisions. But if campaign contributions work, they should influence aggregate policy outcomes. A handful of studies consider this question. For instance, Witko 2014 argues that the shift in financing to wealthy interests likely produced conservative shifts in policy since the 1970s. In contrast, Smith 2000 argues that more campaign contributions from business are not associated with more pro-business policy.

Effects on Other Types of Behavior and Institutional Outcomes

Due to the lack of any consistent effect in the roll-call voting literature, studies have also examined how contributions influence other types of behavior. For example, Hall and Wayman 1990 examines whether contributions may be able to mobilize members of Congress to be active in committee, and Schroedel 1986 considers the relationship between contributions and bill sponsorship. Other studies consider outcomes beyond individual, micro-level congressional behavior and examine institutional outcomes that result from the behavior of many members. For example, Wright 2000 examines how the need for campaign contributions may have influenced committee system reforms in the 1970s. Kroszner and Stratmann 1998 argues that the internal organization of Congress changes in response to campaign contributors. See also Langbein 1986, Leyden 1995, and Wright 1990.

The Conditionality of the Effect

Recognizing the inconsistencies in the studies of the link between campaign contributions and behavior, some scholars have sought to understand the conditions under which campaign contributions are most likely to affect behavior. It seems clear that campaign contributions are most likely to influence roll-call voting on issues that are not highly salient and relatively nonpartisan/nonideological or that provide benefits that are less obvious to the public. Evans 1986, Davis 1993, Neustadtl 1990, and Witko 2006 all examine salient and nonsalient issues and find that contributions influence voting more on the latter. Fellowes and Wolf 2004 finds that policies that do not require direct government expenditures are more likely to be influenced by campaign contributions, while Fleisher 1993 argues that moderate members of Congress are more prone to influence because they do not have strong ideological predispositions that determine their votes on some issues. Regarding other forms of behavior at the committee stage, Witko 2006 argues that the effect of money is greater when the issue is highly salient, partisan, and ideological because the presence of a contributor preference can help members to choose which issues to devote their time to among the large set of salient, partisan policy debates. Fleisher 1993 shows that some members of Congress are more susceptible to the influence of campaign contributions than others, and Stratmann 1998 examines how the timing of contributions may condition their effectiveness.

  • Davis, Frank L. “Balancing the Perspective on PAC Contributions: In Search of an Impact on Roll Calls.” American Politics Research 21.2 (1993): 205–222.

    DOI: 10.1177/1532673X9302100203Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The author argues that political action committee (PAC) contributions are most likely to influence behavior on low-visibility, low-conflict issues and finds evidence for this.

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  • Evans, Diana M. “PAC Contributions and Roll-Call Voting: Conditional Power.” In Interest Group Politics. 2d ed. Edited by Allan J. Cigler and Burdette A. Loomis, 114–132. Washington, DC: CQ Press, 1986.

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    Evans is one of the earlier scholars to argue that the political context may condition the relationship between contributions and voting.

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  • Fellowes, Matthew C., and Patrick J. Wolf. “Funding Mechanisms and Policy Instruments: How Business Campaign Contributions Influence Congressional Votes.” Political Research Quarterly 57.2 (2004): 315–324.

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    The authors show that contributions are unlikely to influence expenditure votes but are likely to influence regulatory and tax policies that do not require direct expenditures by government.

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  • Fleisher, Richard. “PAC Contributions and Congressional Voting on National Defense.” Legislative Studies Quarterly 18.3 (1993): 391–409.

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    The author shows that campaign contributions influence voting on defense issues but that contributions have the strongest effect for moderate members of Congress.

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  • Moore, Ryan T., Eleanor Neff Powell, and Andrew Reeves. “Driving Support: Workers, PACs and Congressional Support of the Auto Industry.” Business and Politics 15.2 (2013): 137–162.

    DOI: 10.1515/bap-2013-0005Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    The authors examine the effect of campaign contributions from the auto industry on roll-call voting and find that only when other organized interests are not mobilized in opposition do auto industry campaign contributions consistently influence voting on legislation related to the auto industry.

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  • Neustadtl, Alan. “Interest-Group PACsmanship: An Analysis of Campaign Contributions, Issue Visibility, and Legislative Impact.” Social Forces 69.2 (1990): 549–564.

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    Neustadtl examines how issue visibility conditions the effect of PAC money on voting. He finds that contributions are less likely to influence highly visible votes (i.e., those with a great deal of media coverage).

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  • Stratmann, Thomas. “The Market for Congressional Votes: Is Timing of Contributions Everything?” Journal of Law and Economics 41.1 (1998): 85–114.

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    Stratmann uses longitudinal data to examine whether the timing of contributions is related to the effect that they have on behavior. He finds that contributions increase around the time of important legislative events and that these contributions influence voting. He concludes that giving contributions near important votes is a mechanism of ensuring that legislators trade votes for contributions.

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  • Witko, Christopher. “PACs, Issue Context, and Congressional Decision Making.” Political Research Quarterly 59.2 (2006): 283–295.

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    The author argues that contributions are less likely to affect voting on salient, partisan issues but more likely to influence legislative “effort” on such issues.

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Indirect Effects on Agency Decision Making

We expect campaign contributions to influence members of Congress because they directly benefit from the donations. However, Drope and Hansen 2004; Hogan, et al. 2010; and Witko 2011 argue that campaign contributions can also influence agency decision making because politicians may be willing to intervene in agency decision making in exchange for campaign contributions. Agencies may respond to these interventions because they have to please members of Congress. Thus these studies that find a link between campaign contributions and bureaucratic activities may provide indirect evidence that campaign contributions influence the behavior of members of Congress.

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