Questioning the Access Hypothesis: Healthcare Lobbyists’ Contributions During the Health Reform Debate

35 Pages Posted: 15 Jul 2012 Last revised: 5 Sep 2012

Date Written: 2012


The prevailing wisdom regarding the reason lobbyists give campaign contributions to Members of Congress holds that the purpose of the contribution is to buy access to the politician’s precious time and effort. But this access-buying hypothesis has been difficult to test, in part because lobbyists were not required to report their personal contributions, except to the Federal Elections Commission along with the general public. This paper exploits new data containing nearly all of lobbyists’ individual and organizational federal campaign contributions since mid-2008. These data give us for the first time the opportunity to link lobbyists’ contributions to their contemporaneous lobbying activity. Contrary to the access-buying hypothesis, the analysis indicates that lobbyists do not take full advantage of their right to donate to the politicians who are writing legislation of great importance to the lobbying organization. Less than one percent of lobbyist-senator dyads contain any activity at all. Lobbyists pay less attention than we would expect to the senator’s legislative activities, position in the Senate, and reelection timing. I argue that lobbyists are severely constrained in their ability to influence Members through contributions. Specifically, they are limited by budget, by the seeming propriety of contributions, and by their level of knowledge and familiarity with the policy process. I suggest that a lobbyist’s decision to contribute to a Member of Congress is more like bringing a bottle of wine to a dinner party than an exchange of money for services.

Keywords: lobbying, lobbyists, interest groups, contributions, health care reform, Congress, policymaking

Suggested Citation

McKay, Amy Melissa, Questioning the Access Hypothesis: Healthcare Lobbyists’ Contributions During the Health Reform Debate (2012). APSA 2012 Annual Meeting Paper, Available at SSRN:

Amy Melissa McKay (Contact Author)

University of Exeter ( email )

Northcote House
The Queen's Drive
Exeter, Devon EX4 4QJ
United Kingdom

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