WASHINGTON -- Democratic congressional staffers are increasingly wary of alienating corporate lobbyists for fear of inciting a massive advertising blitz against their bosses, according to an informal survey by the consumer watchdog group Public Citizen.
Almost 60 percent of the Democratic staffers responding to the survey said that the influence of lobbyists in the policymaking process has been strengthened by the 2010 "Citizens United" Supreme Court decision, which unleashed corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on political advertising -- in some cases, anonymously.
Nine out of the 56 Democratic staffers who responded to the survey said they now feel a need to "respond differently" to lobbyists.
“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,” wrote one Democratic legislative director, in response to the survey’s open-ended question.
Fear of negative campaign advertising has long been considered a powerful factor in Congress, particularly among Democrats whose impulses might otherwise be toward an agenda less to the liking of moneyed interests.
"It's certainly always in people's minds," said Lisa Gilbert, deputy director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch. "It's not a new problem. But the scope is new," she said in an interview with HuffPost.
What's changed is that now ads can materialize almost instantly, and without accountability.
"Never before has there been this real knowledge that independent expenditures that you wouldn't know about could happen at the last minute," Gilbert said. "Coming after this latest election cycle -- a lot of the staffers who made it back in really experienced that."
Public Citizen's view, said Gilbert, is that "even one office where there's fear influencing the decision-making process is problematic."
"To us," she said, "this just makes the point that we need reforms of the system."
Public Citizen sent out its survey to a bipartisan list of 3,400 congressional staffers; 80 responded, all but 10 of them from Democratic offices. The few Republicans who replied said nothing has changed for them, one way or the other.
The group's analysis of the survey acknowledged the low response rate but nevertheless concluded that the findings were, by the Supreme Court's own definition, something to be worried about. The Court, it noted, wrote in "Citizens United" that if elected officials were shown to "succumb to improper influences from independent expenditures; if they surrender their best judgment; and if they put expediency before principle, then surely there is cause for concern."
“During the 2010 cycle, something like $1 million was spent against us by organizations that don’t disclose their donors. It will be more in 2012," one House legislative assistant wrote back to Public Citizen. "The concern that every decision we make that affects some large organization or corporation will end up contributing to that number is ever-present, and totally demoralizing. This isn’t how the system is supposed to work.”
Another Democratic congressional staffer wrote that "it is clear that lobbyists of corporations know they now have more power and resources to help elect congressional members who agree with them, so their attitudes reflect a sense of increased empowerment when communicating with members and staff compared to non-corporate lobbyists."
"Lobbyists for powerful entities, like corporations, have a huge presence and supreme influence in most offices -- not only because they have full access to members of Congress at fundraisers but also because they have money to hire a team of staff to work on any one issue," another wrote. "I am not aware of many non-profits or consumer advocacy groups that have that kind of staff power or influence ... and Citizens United will likely only exacerbate this disparity."
"We have the best democracy money can buy," yet another said. "The best thing we could do for our democracy is to enact campaign finance reform. Get the money out of Congress now."
Dan Froomkin is senior Washington correspondent for The Huffington Post. You can send him an email, bookmark his page; subscribe to his RSS feed, follow him on Twitter, friend him on Facebook, and/or become a fan and get email alerts when he writes.