How might interest groups use their money to influence policy outcomes in Congress? What effect does the timing and targeting of money have on their effectiveness? How exactly might we go about measuring such influence, in both contributions and results?
It is an open secret that private interest groups wield enormous influence over the Congress. Indeed, political lobbying and the Public Relations efforts that it entails is a multi-billion dollar industry. This state of affairs suggests that far from the principles enshrined in the Constitution, the Congress has now become a market place. Each law or amendment has a bunch of monetary transactions behind it. While a conventional market place sells commodities and services, the Congress sells legislative favors. It is a pitiable condition, but nevertheless true.
Numerous empirical studies have been conducted on understanding the nature of influence of interest groups. As far as studies on interest groups’ ability to influence legislative voting, the results are mixed. It is fairly clear that cultural issues such as gay rights, abortion, school prayer, etc have minimal interference from interest groups. The reason is obvious – they have no overt commercial bearing. For general socio-cultural topics
“legislative voting is driven by partisanship, ideology, religious beliefs, and constituency opinion, with interest group influence occurring at the margins. Interest group influence on culture war issues is conditional, but may be more visible simply because support has been relatively low.” (Haider-Markel, 1999)
Amid the generic fear over the influence of interest groups, a particular concern has risen over the notion that Political Action Committees (PACs) are buying the allegiance of politicians. The flow of money into PAC’s reveals a blatant misuse of campaign financing. For example, the PAC leadership has been found to allow special interests and big business to sway key decisions. One can garner this from an analysis of receipts and expenditure incurred by PACs in the last decade. The spirit behind limits to campaign donation is to pre-empt any undue pressure from large donors. But this regulation is easily circumvented “by giving to a member’s personal campaign fund and to his or her leadership PAC”. (Public Citizen’s Congress Watch, 2004) So, legal loopholes such as these have effectively made election campaigns sophisticated quid-pro-quo affairs. To cite an example, during the 1991-92 Congressional elections, the maximum personal campaign fund cap of $2000 was worked around by generations of up to $5000 toward leadership PACs and Effective Government Committees.