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Does Money Influence Access to Congress?

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Not according to new landmark research!

Daily, we are bombarded with stories of how money influences the direction of laws and regulations. That money determines who is seen and gets access to the U.S. Congress.

Apparently, that is not the view of both congressional staff who works on Capitol Hill and the lobbyists who are paid to influence them.

Recently released research from the Graduate School of Political Management (GSPM) at George Washington University and the Original U.S. Congress Handbook argue other factors are more important in determining who gets meetings with the Congress.

Congressional staff and the lobbying community were asked "Please rank each of the following based on their importance as determinants of whether a lobbyist or advocacy organization will gain access to a member of Congress or his/her staff (data has been rounded and may not add up to 100%):

Providing credible, reliable information:
Hill Staff : 46% Lobbying Community: 39%

Existing relationships among Members/staff/lobbyists:
Hill Staff: 28% Lobbying Community: 38%

Reputation as a powerful lobby
Hill Staff: 2% Lobbying Community: 6%

Whether PAC has supported Member or not:
Hill Staff: 2% Lobbying Community: 4%

Reputation of individual seeking the meeting:
Hill Staff: 12% Lobbying Community: 12%

Previously worked for Legislator:
Hill Staff: 11% Lobbying Community: 8%

Other:
Hill Staff: 27% Lobbying Community: 14%

The specific answers to "other" focused generally on constituent interests but did not aggregate to any statistically relevant access tool.

The takeaways:

1. Congressional staffers are information vacuums. They want to receive information; lobbyists want to provide information in an attempt to influence them or the outcome on legislation; if you or anyone has great information, you can impact the process.

2. Political Action Committee (PAC) support doesn't matter in getting the meeting. The study included a strong cross-section of staff titles, even those positions which are most sensitive to financial contributors. It ranked very low across all congressional positions. Moreover, even lobbyists who often control the flow of contributions from PACs ranked it at 4 percent.

3. Powerful Lobbying "Brands" matter less than you think. This surprised me, having been both a Hill staffer and a lobbyist. I spent years and resources building the brand of the National Beer Wholesalers Association and the National Association of Broadcasters. It's important to have strong brand, but apparently it matters little on Capitol Hill to get a meeting.

4. Individual reputations matter! Over one in 10 staffers and lobbyists believe the individual asking for the meeting makes a difference for the person to get the meeting. Ironically, the lobbying professional spends little time educating their profession on how to build a positive and visible brand. A lobbyist carefully building their personal reputation appears to be a strong investment to get meetings with the U.S. Congress.

5. Previously working for a legislator is a strong plus in obtaining meetings. Current members of Congress and their staff recognize you, know of your reputation, and have a good sense of you. Understanding how Capitol Hill works is best understood by living it as a former staff member. That's why you read or hear about staffers making "the jump" from Capitol Hill to "K Street" (where many lobbying organizations have offices). This continues to occur even with congressional ethics reforms which have a two-year "cooling off" period before former staff can lobby their old boss(es).

Now for the good news: Anyone who has reliable, credible information has the opportunity to gain a meeting with a member of Congress or his/her staff. That is a great result for our democracy. So the next time you hear a media story about money influencing access to the U.S. Congress, tell yourself that landmark research demonstrates that is not a regular occurrence in Washington.

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