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Insider Policy Advocacy: Overview

This report was last updated in November 2020. It may no longer be accurate, both with respect to the evidence it presents and our assessment of the evidence. We may revise this report in the future, depending on our research capacity and research priorities. Questions and comments are welcome.

What are the key techniques of insider advocacy? When is insider advocacy effective in influencing policy? What does the academic literature on insider advocacy suggest is important to effective work? In this document, we address these questions and present our overall take on the use of insider advocacy to influence US national climate policy. This review of the literature forms the basis of our work reviewing and recommending insider advocacy organizations.

In Giving Green’s document How We Determined Our 2020 Research Priorities, we identified insider policy advocacy as one of our priority research areas for 2020. In this document, we summarize the state of evidence on insider advocacy and its promise as a method for working towards policy change that dramatically reduces the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Advocacy refers to engagement in the legislative or regulatory process in order to shape priorities and influence specific pieces of legislation or regulation [1]. In this document, we provide an overview of insider advocacy, in which “insiders” with connections and experience in the policymaking process seek to influence legislators or consequential regulators. Insider advocates use techniques including:

  • One-on-one lobbying and meetings with decision-makers

  • Engagement with policymakers through seminars and events focused on policy issues

  • Direct policy support through the creation or editing of policy proposals and draft legislation

  • Policy research and dissemination focused on providing an intellectual basis and talking points to support the creation of policy.

Some evidence suggests that insider advocacy can be a highly effective strategy to influence the shape and success or failure of legislation and regulation, including climate legislation aimed at reducing the concentration of atmospheric greenhouse gases (Meng & Rode, 2019). However, each story of successful insider advocacy is matched by many comparable stories of failure (or success of the opposing side). The success of insider advocacy efforts is highly dependent on a number of contextual factors impacting the policy process. These include:

  • The policy status quo

  • Interest group organization and funding

  • Political conditions and the positions held by crucial decision-makers or median legislators

  • The tactics and sophistication of opposed groups

(See Baumgartner et al., 2009, for a useful and detailed overview of how these factors influence advocacy efforts). Effective insider advocacy organizations are those who understand these context factors well, exercise superior judgement and skill in constructing an advocacy strategy appropriate to their context, know their allies and have the right relationships with decision-makers to facilitate a given goal, and are able to adapt to the constantly shifting demands of the policy environment surrounding their goal.

Based on the ubiquity of insider advocacy in shaping legislation and regulation across all policy domains along with evidence that insider advocacy can determine the success or failure of climate legislation (discussed below in greater detail), we believe that insider advocacy is an important part of shaping climate-change legislation to reduce the concentration of atmospheric greenhouse gases. This is especially true since insider advocacy is an established and ubiquitous part of the policy creation process, and so any legislation eventually brought to a vote will necessarily reflect the work of insider advocates and experts. Insider advocacy efforts, when successful, have a high maximum potential to influence policy. However, insider advocacy overall has a moderate to low probability of achieving success. In addition, insider advocacy is inherently difficult to evaluate definitively given the context-dependent nature of insider advocacy work and the often diffuse nature of inputs to legislation from specific groups advocating for the same goal.

Introduction: What is insider advocacy and how does it work?

Advocacy refers to engagement in the policymaking process, both legislative and regulatory, in order to shape priorities and influence specific pieces of legislation passed. Legislative advocacy focuses primarily on impacting legislation through working with and influencing politicians and bureaucrats already in power. Advocates influence how these officials shape legislation and regulation and which pieces of policy they support. Common approaches to advocacy include:

  • Registered one-on-one meetings between legislators and professional lobbyists or citizen groups

  • Direct policy creation support such as providing drafts of legislative or regulatory proposals on behalf of politicians and bureaucrats

  • Producing research that provides intellectual input to legislators for shaping or deciding how to vote on legislation

  • Informal sector influence in which policy insiders host seminars, events, and other informal meetings and interactions to spread ideas to legislators and regulators in power.

Advocacy can be usefully grouped into two different types of activity: insider advocacy and outsider advocacy (Mykkänen, 2019), each of which represents a unique approach to engaging in the legislative process. Insider advocacy involves activities undertaken by policy “insiders,” most often registered lobbyists, former political figures or staffers, or think-tank researchers who have extensive and well-developed networks with members of Congress or other decision-makers and, in some cases, who have extensive expertise in a given policy area. “Outsider” methods generally involve individuals or groups without close personal contacts with members of Congress, such as groups of voters in a Congress member's constituency, who pressure legislators to act in a particular way. In this article, we focus on “insider” methods. We include “outsider” advocacy methods under the heading of Activism, which we discuss in a separate document.

The table below, reproduced from Baumgartner et al., 2009 provides a useful overview of the many different tactics used by practitioners of insider and outsider advocacy.

Below, we investigate a number of unique insider advocacy techniques as well as the history of how these techniques have been used to influence climate policy.

Lobbying and 1-1 meetings

In the United States, lobbying generally falls into two categories: formal and informal lobbying. Formal lobbying refers to lobbying that takes place when an entity such as a corporation or interest group hires a professional lobbyist for pay in order to advocate for a particular policy, normally from a dedicated bi-partisan lobbying firm that lobbies on behalf of paying clients. Informal lobbying involves the general use of insider networks to advocate for particular policy positions, outside of formal registered lobbying meetings between a professional lobbyist and a decision-maker. For example, a staff member of an environmental organization may meet with a legislator to share ideas and insight or contribute to the creation of a piece of legislation. Such an individual is not a professional lobbyist hired specifically for the task of advocating for a particular legislative goal, but nonetheless may exert significant influence on the policy process.

In the United States, lobbying for pay, known colloquially as “K Street Lobbying” after the street in Washington, D.C., where many prominent lobbyist offices are located, is an officially regulated activity. Under the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, lobbying by any entity that involves hiring a professional lobbyist for pay to advocate particular policy positions or outcomes must be fully publicly disclosed, and strict rules govern the kinds of activities that can take place between legislators and lobbyists in the context of official meetings as well as requirements for reporting expenditures on lobbying-related activities. Notably, much empirical research on insider advocacy makes use of these legal requirements, analyzing the data collected as a result of the formal registering and reporting of lobbying activities. Formal, professional lobbying is a significant politically-focused industry in the United States, with a market size of $3.2 billion in 2019.

While early work on lobbying understood it primarily as a form of persuasive activity or as facilitating a quid-pro-quo relationship between politicians and organized groups impacting their reelection and financial prospects, the current dominant framework for assessing lobbying emphasizes its role as a form of legislative subsidy: policymakers seek out the assistance of ideologically-aligned lobbyists and experts, who in turn provide services in drafting legislation and provide research and advising work on behalf of an organized interest relevant to the politician or bureaucrat they work with. Through this process, they are able to shape agendas to a considerable degree (Hall & Deardorff, 2006). For example, a conservative politician may delegate some of the work of shaping a legislative proposal to a staff member of a group such as the Heritage Foundation that shares the legislator’s ideology. Or such a politician may pay special attention to a lobbyist who represents an interest group that is relevant within the constituency the politician represents.

While the model of lobbying as a legislative subsidy provides a useful guide to understanding lobbying activity that is not well represented in mass discourse on lobbying, research by McKay (2018) demonstrates that some amount of quid-pro-quo is in fact a relevant part of the lobbying process, as changes to legislation disproportionately accrue to lobbyists who help host fundraisers for politicians. Thus, lobbying helps signal the policy positions of organized groups that can affect a politician’s political fortune through donations or votes, and helps facilitate information sharing and direct quid-pro-quo arrangements between politicians and groups.

In summary, lobbying works in a variety of intertwined ways, including as a form of quid-pro-quo between politicians and the interests they are responsive to for electoral support and financing (a function that is well-represented in popular discourse around lobbying) and as a form of legislative subsidy in which legislators receive useful help from the representatives of interests they already share (a function that is not well-represented in popular discourse on lobbying).

Lobbying and climate change

Lobbying on climate is a small part (approximately 4%) of overall formal (official) lobbying expenditure, and existing climate-focused insider advocacy efforts concentrated in advocating for fossil-fuel linked interests exceed the scope of efforts to advocate for stronger climate policy (Brulle, 2018).

Meng & Rode (2019) show that lobbying played a decisive role in defeating the passage of the Waxman-Markey bill for a national carbon cap and trade scheme during 2009-2010, one of the most ambitious climate bills with the highest probability of passing in the United States due to the favorable political environment of Democrat-controlled legislative and executive branches. Their research convincingly suggests that lobbying activity, specifically professional (registered) lobbyist meetings by firms expecting to lose revenue should the Waxman-Markey bill be passed into law, played an important role in causing the failure of the proposal, demonstrating the crucial role of lobbying in shaping national climate policy in the United States.

The majority of spending on climate-policy in recent years has lobbying came from utilities, fossil fuel, and transportation companies. In general lobbying on behalf of pro-climate regulation outspends pro-climate lobbying by a factor of 10 to 1 [2]. Climate lobbying tends to be most intense whenever changes to greenhouse gas regulations are more likely, highlighting the importance of underlying political context in driving legislative advocacy activity (Brulle, 2018). Corporate lobbying (which is broadly in favor of less intense climate change policy) tends to be not only larger in sums of money spent but also in duration (Brulle, 2018). Together, these facts show that lobbying has been, to date, dominated by interests largely opposed to strong pro-climate legislative change.

In addition to the facts highlighted above, corporations and other organizations often engage in highly sophisticated strategies, and it is not uncommon for corporations and organizations to appear to be supporting certain kinds of climate regulation that they in fact oppose. For example, in 2009-2010, firms that were opposed to the introduction of carbon pricing and lobbied against it also joined the pro cap-and-trade coalition lobbying for carbon pricing in order to help shape the form carbon pricing legislation might take if it were passed against their wishes (Grumbach, 2015). This complex nature of the link between policy interests and advocacy activity shows that identifying promising advocacy efforts requires detailed research, as efforts that are supposedly intended to promote pro-climate legislation may be a front for more complicated interests aimed, ultimately, at weakening the potential for meaningful reductions in greenhouse gases to occur.

Overall, lobbying on climate change is a complex arena in which different interests make their policy preferences known and support the legislative process, all the while seeking to bend policy outcomes to their will.

Direct policy support (Creating or editing policy documents)

Legislators and regulators alike are highly time- and attention-constrained. For this reason, they often offload some of the work of preparing draft legislation to trusted insiders. This sometimes includes paid lobbyists, such as when lobbyists paid by banks directly wrote portions of Dodd-Frank reforms in 2010, which received an investigation in the New York Times and coverage by NPR and Mother Jones among others. Some instances of legislation written directly by advocates occur on a case-by-case basis for particular legislative initiatives, while others derive from “Model Acts” (sometimes called “Model Legislation”), which are pre-drafted pieces of legislation that are disseminated with the intent of fostering wide adoption by state legislators and at the national level through incorporation into proposed bills and regulations. In some cases, legislation may be close to a proposal by an interest group or other insider advocate and may differ linguistically but not substantively from the initial proposal (see McKay et al., 2018, for an interesting analysis of this phenomenon).

Overall, due to the difficulty of determining who wrote particular pieces of legislation, there is little literature on the effectiveness of direct policy support or whether it causes outcomes that would not occur otherwise. In addition, we have not, to date, discovered any concrete instances of climate change legislation or regulation directly traceable to the authorship of individual lobbyists or insider organizations. Nonetheless, the scope for influence in direct legislative work, especially when paired with other advocacy techniques like 1-1 lobbying meetings, may be significant.

Research and general sector influence (seminars, events, etc.)

The creation of legislation often requires an intellectual basis, as policymakers strive to create policy using a combination of theory and “facts,” or evidence from rigorous studies. Experimental evidence from other contexts beyond US policy has established the potential for research work and evidence to causally, significantly shift policy (Vivalt & Coville, 2020; Hjort et al., 2019; Beynon et al., 2012). Much of the intellectual work feeding into policies is completed by think-tank type organizations, which can either be ideologically-oriented or ostensibly neutral in their orientation. These groups often explicitly seek to create research that can form the basis of legislation and regulation, and their research priorities and output thus reflect their ideological commitments.

Overall, the marginal contribution of a given think-tank’s work or a specific research output is often difficult to determine, particularly since think-tanks are often used for ideological posturing in addition to any use for substantive policy formulation, and in fact, come into being in part to play the role of ideologically committed experts (see Bland (2020) for preliminary evidence on the different ways in which members of Congress mobilize research groups to achieve primarily ideological objectives that may be unrelated to a need for accurate or objective evidence).

Nonetheless, research and related general sector influence work like seminars and other research-focused events may have an impact on policy in two distinct ways. First, in specific cases, research work disseminated publicly might lead legislators or regulators to take action they would not otherwise, whether motivated by ideological or purely empirical concerns raised by a given piece of research. Second, large-scale work in a particular vein may have broad influence over establishing a “common sense” around particular policy issues among both the public, elites, and specifically policymakers involved in regulation or legislation. For example, the work of numerous conservative think tanks, aligned with business interests, in establishing and disseminating climate denialist narratives and discourse may be an example of a diffuse way in which research-focused organizations substantively shaped the policy environment to the success or detriment of particular policy outcomes, in this case, the enactment of policy that regulates greenhouse gas emissions (see Brulle, 2014).

Is insider advocacy effective?

Overall, the literature on insider advocacy suggests that its effectiveness is mixed. Lowery (2013) provides an excellent overview of this literature, in which individual studies very often conclude that organizational impact on the legislative process through insider advocacy is minimal or non-existent. In addition, the relationship between total funding and advocacy success is not one-to-one, especially as funding may be correlated with other characteristics such as the size and internal coordination of groups (Baumgartner et al., 2009).

The literature as a whole suffers from difficulties inherent in its subject matter: it is very often nearly impossible to convincingly construct a counterfactual of what kind of policy outcome would have been reached absent insider activity, though some studies have managed to exploit transparencies in the policy process for certain initiatives to explicitly infer changes due to insider advocacy (see, for example, McKay 2018). In addition, interest groups very often engage in advocacy as part of coalitions, which may increase their effectiveness under certain conditions (Nelson and Yackee, 2012). This poses difficulties for assessing the unique contribution of a given organization or initiative among many closely related ones. Facing these difficulties, many studies rely on expert testimony, often from decision-makers themselves or privileged observers of the policy process, to try and determine with precision the impact of particular organizations on the policy process.

Despite the overall uncertainty in the literature, a number of studies (such as Nelson & Yackee, 2012; Naughton et al, 2009; McKay, 2018, Meng & Rode, 2019) have claimed to uncover instances in which insider advocacy made a decisive difference to the passage or shape of both legislation and regulation, including changes related to climate change specifically, as shown in Meng & Rode (2019)’s research on the effect of lobbying in facilitating the failure to enact the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill into law.

Overall, the literature supports the statement by Baumgartner and Leech (2001) that “the unavoidable conclusion is that PACs and direct lobbying sometimes strongly influence Congressional voting, sometimes have marginal influence and sometimes fail to exert influence.” Based on our review of the literature, we believe that insider advocacy has the potential to be highly effective under the right circumstances and with the right organization, but that the overall probability of a given insider advocacy effort achieving success is low. Overall, this leads us to conclude that insider advocacy has a medium to high potential impact and is therefore a high-potential option among the many approaches to policy change [3].

Assessing insider advocacy organizations requires understanding their internal organization and their track record of success (as much as can be determined with certainty). There is no one correct or clearly superior way to engage in advocacy. What counts as effective insider advocacy depends entirely on context. Their ability to navigate the important context factors that shape what the right approach to insider advocacy is for a given policy idea. The relevant context factors include political context, status-quo bias, opponent tactics, and organization + resources as key factors which impact the potential of insider advocacy, with implications for determining the likely effectiveness of advocacy campaigns (Baumgartner et al., 2009 provide an excellent overview of each of these factors).

The “legislative subsidy” model of insider advocacy, in particular lobbying and policy creation, suggests that much insider advocacy takes place between an interest group and an already sympathetic legislator. This points to the overall importance of underlying political reality in shaping the scope for insider advocacy work. If the swing-vote senator voting for a climate policy bill is sympathetic to the idea of introducing effective climate policy that reduces atmospheric greenhouse gases, then advocacy directed towards this senator by environmental groups to improve the senator’s policy proposal or stance on particular climate policy issues may be highly impactful compared to the same efforts directed towards anti-climate candidates. Advocacy is, at its core, a practice in sharing information about policies and arguments for positions and building political relationships between relevant interest groups and funding groups and legislators or regulators in order to shape their thinking on what should be done around a particular issue and their own final proposals or decisions. The right approach to advocacy is thus highly dependent on who the relevant decision-makers on a given policy goal are and who they are likely to trust and listen to, conditions that constantly shift as political fortunes change.

Another key feature of insider advocacy is a persistent status-quo bias impacting legislation. In general, status-quo policies already represent the outcome of previous rounds of policy negotiations and decisions, and advocacy around maintaining the status quo thus often faces fewer barriers to effectiveness (Baumgartner et al., 2009). In general, advocacy that challenges the status quo is fundamentally different from pro-status quo advocacy, with challengers spending more time drafting legislation, engaging with committees, and meeting with legislators than those who support status quo policy outcomes. Changing the status quo often requires a more significant mobilization of resources than status-quo preservation. Since Climate Change policy generally involves changes to the status quo, pro-climate insider advocacy may need more funding than anti-climate insider advocacy to be effective.

Advocacy efforts are, in addition, strongly aided by the organization of the interest groups that seek to engage in insider advocacy around an issue. To provide one example, “airlines are more likely to be present in the lobbying community than the diffuse group of people who often suffer through terrible service as airline customers” (Baumgartner et al., 2009). Advocacy in general benefits from tight organizational decision making and funding dedicated to a particular issue and policy position. For this reason, companies, trade associations and unions, and particularly popular and well-organized interest groups are in a strongly advantageous position to lead insider advocacy efforts due to their significant pre-existing organization and coordination. This is not only because these groups command large amounts of funding, but because they represent tightly organized interest groups that are capable of coordinated action for or against a politician (which may be more important than funding) (Baumgartner et al, 2009).

A final important feature of insider advocacy is that it is often a game between two or more sides with opposed policy preferences. Thus, the success of an advocacy effort may depend to a large extent on the effectiveness of one’s opponents in developing a sophisticated and well-organized strategy and reacting to one’s own moves. For example, if an opponent has effectively managed to control the framing around an issue, then an advocacy effort may be constrained in its ability to re-frame an issue. What counts as “effective” advocacy is highly dependent on this environment. In the case of climate change policy, anti-climate insider advocates and interests have shown considerable adroitness in setting framing around climate issues. In addition, these groups have spent more to date than pro-climate interests (though this does not guarantee their success, as politicians develop their policy positions for a variety of factors such as public opinion, not just in response to which interest groups targeting them are best funded).

In summary, insider advocacy is a highly context-dependent activity, and the success of an advocacy effort depends in large part on:

  • The policy status quo

  • Interest group organization and funding

  • Political conditions and the positions held by crucial decision-makers or median legislators

  • The tactics and sophistication of opposed groups

To assess an insider advocacy strategy as “effective,” one must understand all of these pieces of the policy context, which may at times be opaque to outsiders. What counts as a best-practice approach in one year may be highly likely to fail in another. The best insider advocates, both formal and informal, are those who understand these context factors well, exercise superior judgement and skill in their craft, and know their allies and have the right relationships with decision-makers to facilitate a given goal.

Overall, we believe that insider advocacy is an important part of shaping climate-change legislation to reduce the concentration of atmospheric greenhouse gases. This is especially true since insider advocacy is an established and ubiquitous part of the policy creation process, and so any legislation eventually brought to a vote will necessarily reflect the work of insider advocates and experts. Insider advocacy efforts, when successful, have a high maximum potential to influence policy. However, insider advocacy overall has a moderate to low probability of achieving success.

The success of insider advocacy is difficult to predict in advance and difficult to analyze retrospectively due to the importance of context, which may shift suddenly. For this reason, our analysis of insider advocacy organizations includes the following components

  1. Focus on personnel - personal connections and experience are a crucially important input to effective insider advocacy

  2. Assess past wins across contexts - an ability to adapt to multiple political contexts and secure wins in many contexts suggests the necessary adaptability to succeed as political conditions inevitably change

  3. Evaluate overall organizational strength - organizational strength is required to effectively engage in the process, which requires discipline and coordination.

The landscape of insider advocacy

What does the landscape of insider advocacy look like? Overall, the climate insider advocacy space is made up of both the so-called “Big-Greens” and smaller organizations, all of whom act together at times and also do important independent work. The “Big-Green” organizations include large and well-funded interest groups such as the Sierra Club, EDF, NRDC and well-established climate and energy focused think-tanks like the World Resources Institute. Often, these groups combine multiple tactics and layers of organization into one: the Sierra Club, for example, has both local membership chapters and a DC-based national chapter, all of which engage in a mixture of insider and outsider advocacy along with grassroots mobilization and activism.

Often, these groups are focused on a large range of issues rather than specific policy priorities, though their work may change over time to reflect some level of internal prioritization. These groups are well-known, well-funded, and often serve as a go-to source for policymakers, especially since their status as interest groups means they often represent a sizable portion of the organized electorate. In many cases, the staff of these organizations are policy insiders who come from administration backgrounds (for example, the current head of the NRDC is Gina McCarthy, former head of the EPA under the Obama administration). This ensures these groups have insider status, but may also mean that these groups could conceivably function as holding places for potential administration members waiting for changes in political power [4].

We believe that these groups play an important role in influencing climate policy, however, given their large size and the fact that they are generally well-funded, we believe there is a higher marginal impact available for donors who choose to donate to smaller organizations that have a proven track record and ambitious plans. Small organizations with annual revenue in the $2-6 million range like the Clean Air Task Force – a think-tank and advocacy group that works on influencing specific pieces of legislation and regulation and providing high-quality research aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions – may have important additional inputs into the policy process and have a higher need for funding to make a difference to policy. For this reason, we identify and review a number of smaller groups of this sort in our Shallow Dives document on insider advocacy organizations.


Note: This is a non-partisan analysis (study or research) and is provided for educational purposes.

[1] Regulation may often form the bulk of important rule-making around climate, and is an important channel for lobbying and other advocacy activities; Nelson & Yackee, 2012.


[3] For further details on other approaches to influencing policy, see our overview document available here.

[4] Expert interviews conducted by our team suggested this may be the case.



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