- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Money does buy more clout in Washington — or at least more returned phone calls, according to an ingenious new study released Tuesday.

Graduate students David Broockman from the University of California, Berkeley and Joshua Kalla from Yale University conducted a research experiment in which an organization, attempting to build support for a bill, tried to schedule meetings with nearly 200 members of Congress.

Sometimes the congressional offices were told the meeting would be with “local campaign donors,” while in other cases the participants were described as “local constituents.”

Guess which group got more meetings with more senior staffers and lawmakers?

“Congressional offices made considerably more senior officials available for meetings when offices were informed the attendees were donors, with senior officials attending such meetings more than three times as often,” the two researchers found.

For the big prize — face time with the member of Congress himself — 8 percent of the “local donors” scored a meeting, compared to just 2 percent for those who identified themselves only as local constituents.

The researchers set up the meetings through CREDO Action, an organization that funds progressive nonprofit groups such as Democracy Now, the Brennan Center for Justice, Doctors Without Borders and Planned Parenthood. Meetings were organized with representatives from one political party, which was not revealed in the study; however, given CREDO Action’s history of support for left-leaning organizations, it is likely the representatives were Democrats.

But, Mr. Broockman said that it is unlikely the results would differ across party lines. The study provides one of the few quantifiable studies of the nexus between campaign cash and access.

“There’s a lot of anecdotes about the importance of access in Washington and whether or not donors have an easier time getting access to members of Congress,” Mr. Broockman said. “The anecdotes aren’t really conclusive one way or the other.”

“I think it’s good that [the survey] was done, because it proves what people already know,” said Melanie Sloan, executive director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “When politicians say donations don’t make any difference in how they operate, it’s untrue.”

Mr. Broockman said the results were worrisome: “It really does matter — the kind of people that members of Congress are hearing from, and are agreeing to hear from are really systematically different in terms of income.”

One interesting aspect of the study is that the randomly chosen lawmakers were only informed that the constituents had contributed to local campaigns, not necessarily to that lawmaker’s own campaign. According to Mr. Broockman and Mr. Kalla, that nuance has large implications for the study’s findings.

Recent studies had found that legislators might be willing to grant more access to past donors — even those who have not necessarily given to them directly — because they have shown a willingness to contribute to campaigns in general. Alternatively, a representative might want to discourage the donor from contributing to a competing campaign.

The study offered a few caveats. The researchers said there is no way of knowing exactly what motivated the differing response rates.

“One experiment cannot establish why senior officials more readily avail themselves to putative donors,” they cautioned. ” … However, that legislators privilege requests from individuals because they have donated has the same social consequences, regardless of why they do so.”

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