Here’s the evidence lobbyists are trying to persuade your member of Congress

Undecideds and agenda-setters are key targets for lobbying

David Miller
Feb 2 · 4 min read
Photo by Yael Clusman on Unsplash

Lobbyists are pervasive in Washington, DC, so pervasive that in the last four months of 2020, interest groups filed nearly 17,000 reports detailing their lobbying, with most focused on Congress.

Popular press accounts and academic studies often suggest that this lobbying influences Congress, and many conclude that lobbying skews policies towards the preferences of businesses and the upper-class. However, because most lobbying activity occurs out of public view, we don’t know what happens when the door closes.

In new research published in Legislative Studies Quarterly, I peer behind the closed doors on Capitol Hill with a survey of federal lobbyists to understand an important dimension of interest groups’ strategic behavior — how groups decide from which members of Congress to seek direct contacts, or access. While access does not guarantee influence, it is a critical antecedent to influence; through access, interest groups gain members’ attention, make their preferences salient to members, and enables them to cultivate relationships with members.

However, in seeking access, few interest groups have sufficient resources to target all 535 members of the House and Senate. Instead, groups must select members from which to pursue direct contacts. But because members of Congress do not disclose with which interest groups they meet, we don’t know which groups have access to which members of Congress.

In lieu of this challenge, I asked lobbyists to participate in hypothetical scenarios where they must choose one of two stylized House members with which to seek an in-person meeting to help advance a live bill (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Example of Stylized Scenario Provided to Lobbyists

In these scenarios — known as conjoint experiments — each stylized House member is randomly assigned a value for each of nine characteristics describing the members’ preferences on the bill (e.g., stated position on the bill), institutional roles (e.g., member of the committee of jurisdiction), and electoral concerns (e.g., margin of victory in the last election). Using lobbyists’ choices, I can determine which congressperson characteristics make interest groups more or less likely to seek direct contacts with House members.

Figure 2 indicates how each of the nine characteristics inform lobbyists’ targeting choices. In terms of members’ preferences on the bill, lobbyists were more likely to choose House members who had not yet declared a position or cosponsored the bill rather than members who supported or opposed the bill.

Turning to members’ institutional roles, lobbyists were more likely to pursue access to House members who were members of the committee with jurisdiction over the bill, held committee leadership positions, and were members of the majority party.

Finally, safe seats don’t seem to matter. Lobbyists were no more or less likely to target members on the basis of the electoral concerns, such as their margin of victory in their last election.

Figure 2: Lobbyists Are More Likely to Target House Members with Weak Preferences on the Bill and whose Institutional Roles Provide Agenda-Setting Power

These results have substantive implications for understanding how lobbying influences policy outcomes on Capitol Hill. By targeting members with weak preferences on a given initiative, my findings suggest that interest groups build support for their initiatives by trying to change members’ preferences. Given that businesses and the upper-class are over-represented in the interest group universe, this underscores a normatively problematic possibility — that lobbying may lead members to adopt positions that reflect the preferences of well-resourced groups rather than those of their constituents (when those preferences diverge).

In addition, by targeting members with institutional roles which provide them with agenda-setting power, my results indicate that interest groups try to influence policy by leveraging procedural mechanisms that can aid or hinder bills’ progress through the legislative process. This conclusion also raises normative concerns because agenda-setting power is often exercised in low-salience contexts, such as congressional committees; thus, interest groups may exercise influence over proposals before they ever appear on the public’s radar.

Because lobbying is a key component of policymaking in a pluralist democracy, providing the myriad interests in society with a means to share their preferences with government officials, restricting interest groups’ access is an infeasible and undesirable response to these normatively troubling consequences.

However, concerns about interest groups’ ability to obtain access to members of Congress that few constituents can enjoy may be assuaged through greater congressional transparency. For instance, Congress could follow the lead of Presidents Obama and Biden and release their visitor logs, enabling the public to monitor to which interest groups their representatives provide access and perhaps discouraging members from providing access to groups out-of-step with their constituents.

If you want to see such improvements in transparency, you might need to lobby Congress yourself — but at least you know which members the professional lobbyists think you should target.


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David Miller

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David is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Vanderbilt University's Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions


3Streams is a blog for anyone interested in the convergence of politics, policy & ideas. It elevates the work of scholars interested in reaching a wider audience on timely topics with novel perspectives. To write for the blog, just leave a message or email