In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Impact of Campaign Contributions on Congressional Behavior

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works and Data Sources
  • Theoretical Views
  • Motivations of Individual Donors
  • Methodological Challenges
  • The Effect on Other Types of Issues
  • Campaign Contributions and Aggregate Policy Outcomes
  • Effects on Other Types of Behavior and Institutional Outcomes
  • The Conditionality of the Effect
  • Indirect Effects on Agency Decision Making

Political Science The Impact of Campaign Contributions on Congressional Behavior
Christopher Witko
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 November 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.

  • Baumgartner, Frank R., and Beth L. Leech. Basic Interests: The Importance of Groups in Politics and in Political Science. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.

    The whole book is useful for understanding interest group influence, but pages 128–136 provide a good overview of campaign contribution studies prior to publication of this book.

  • Ginsberg, Benjamin, and John C. Green. “The Best Congress Money Can Buy: Campaign Contributions and Congressional Behavior.” In Do Elections Matter? Edited by Benjamin Ginsberg and Alan Stone, 75–89. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1986.

    This chapter discusses the different strategies that contributors may pursue—taking Congress as a given and attempting to gain access or seeking to influence elections.

  • Milyo, Jeffrey, David Primo, and Timothy Groseclose. “Corporate PAC Contributions in Perspective.” Business and Politics 2.1 (2000): 75–88.

    DOI: 10.2202/1469-3569.1004

    In this article the authors show that, compared to other things that businesses spend money on, such as advertising and lobbying, campaign contributions are relatively modest.

  • Roscoe, Douglas D., and Shannon Jenkins. “A Meta-analysis of Campaign Contributions’ Impact on Roll Call Voting.” Social Science Quarterly 86.1 (2005): 52–68.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.0038-4941.2005.00290.x

    Roscoe and Jenkins present a literature review and meta-analysis of the findings of a large number of campaign contribution studies. They state that approximately one-third of studies find some effect of contributions on voting, and in their meta-analysis they find support for this relationship.

  • Sabato, Larry. PAC Power: Inside the World of Political Action Committees. New York: Norton, 1985.

    This book provides an early descriptive look at how PACs work through observation and interviews.

  • Sorauf, Frank J. What Price PACs? New York: Fund, 1984.

    This book describes how PACs function and what they do and also raises some concerns about their operations and how they might be reformed.

  • Sorauf, Frank J. Inside Campaign Finance: Myths and Realities. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992.

    Sorauf provides a descriptive look at PACs and campaign finance in this book and offers some normative commentary as well.

  • Stratmann, Thomas. “Some Talk: Money in Politics: A (Partial) Review of the Literature.” Public Choice 124.1–2 (2005): 135–156.

    DOI: 10.1007/s11127-005-4750-3

    This is a literature review with an emphasis on the economics literature on campaign contributions.

  • Witko, Christopher. “When Does Money Buy Votes? Campaign Contributions and Policy-Making.” In New Directions in Interest Group Politics. Edited by Matt Grossman, 165–184. New York: Routledge, 2014.

    The author reviews theoretical perspectives on how campaign contributions influence policy and discusses studies of the influence of campaign contributions on different parts of the policy process, including roll-call voting.

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