The Influence of Campaign Contributions on Legislative Policy
Although many think campaign donations buy influence from legislators, scholars have difficulty determining whether and how much influence contributions have in the legislative process. Many studies seek to identify the influence of donors on roll call votes. After considerable debate most scholars have concluded that donors have little influence on these votes. What voting studies cannot detect are the important, but less observable, opportunities to shape legislation that occur earlier in the legislative process. Although it is easy to identify the inadequacies of voting studies, it is difficult to find better approaches to study donors influence. I describe and critique the various methods that have been used to discern donor influence in the legislative process. I argue donor influence can be measured by combining several of these approaches. I illustrate this technique using my own work which studied the influence of contributions in the 99 state legislative chambers. I found little influence in some chambers and considerable in others. Features of institutional design and politics determine the amount of time legislators devote to fundraising and explain much of the variation in influence among the chambers. Rather than asking whether contributions have influence, we should ask when and where they have influence. I also discuss the extent to which contributions work in tandem with lobbying to influence the legislative process. Is the “access” or the “informational” model of lobbying correct? Finally, I examine whether campaign finance laws can lessen the influence of contributions, and discuss an agenda for future research.