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Congressional staffers fear lobbyists' retaliation

Empty hallway of the House Rayburn Office building.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission has left many congressional staffers fearing retaliation against their bosses if they displease lobbyists, according to an informal survey released today by Public Citizen.

Public Citizen asked 3,401 congressional chiefs of staff, legislative directors and legislative assistants who work on Capitol Hill if they believe that Citizens United, which permitted corporations to spend unlimited sums to influence elections, has strengthened the influence of lobbyists in the policymaking process and if they personally feel a need to respond differently to lobbyists in the wake of the opinion.

Eighty staffers responded. Forty-one percent said Citizens United has “strengthened the influence of lobbyists in the policymaking process.”

There was a stark contrast between the responses of Democrats and Republicans. Of Democratic respondents, nearly three in five (57.1 percent) said Citizens United has strengthened the influence of lobbyists, while 16 percent said they feel “a need to respond differently to lobbyists’ requests.” None of the Republican staffers said they believed that Citizens United has strengthened lobbyists’ influence or that they personally feel a need to respond differently to lobbyists.

“The results of this survey are concerning, although not surprising,” said Taylor Lincoln, research director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division.

The notion that unlimited outside expenditures would not corrupt the policymaking process was fanciful from the start. This is not a scientific survey, but it shows that outside spending does in fact intimidate congressional staff – and that’s very troubling.

Of the staffers who reported a need to respond differently to lobbyists, most chose the explanation that they “worry about preventing electioneering expenditures against the member for whom I work.”

One Democratic legislative director, in response to the survey’s open-ended question, wrote, “The prospect of a massive donation to an outside organization that would run ads against my boss and not have any identifying information about who is behind them has a chilling effect on our decision-making.”

In Public Citizen’s analysis, the survey results undercut a key rationale underlying Citizens United: The court dismissed the prospect that expenditures by outside organizations would have a corrupting effect on the policymaking process. But the court also said there would be “cause for concern” if lawmakers put “expediency before principle,” and the court acknowledged its obligation to give weight to “the appearance or the reality” of improper influences of independent expenditures.

“The survey puts lie to current arguments against disclosure of political spending by government contractors,” said David Arkush, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division, referring to a proposed executive order to require disclosure of campaign spending by corporations that accept government contracts. “Groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce claim that disclosure of political contributions would intimidate government contractors. What’s really going on is that big businesses want to be able to bribe and intimidate government officials who grant lucrative contracts, without the public knowing about it. Americans deserve to know who’s underwriting our elections, and who’s potentially buying off and intimidating public officials.”

View the report, A Cause for Concern.  Check out our Democracy is for People Campaign, or join our Facebook page to get involved in this issue.