Is Congress for Sale?

Author: Sylvia Kniest

Time: Period 1 in computer lab
Periods 2 thru 5 in the classroom
copy articles for Activity 2 from websites listed below
copy action plan and instructions for computer lab
Materials: Activity 1: Instructions for the computer lab
Activity 2: Articles on examples of grassroots lobbying and action plans


Students will research web sites to measure the level of influence campaign donations and Political Action Committees have on their representatives and senators. They will also discover opportunities for private citizens to lobby elected officials and compare their efforts to those of paid lobbyists.

Students will be able to:
1. Evaluate the level of influence Political Action Committees and campaign donations have on their elected representatives.
2. Compare the effectiveness of grassroots and corporate lobbying on political officials.

National Standards For Civics and Government
III-E. How does the American political system provide for choice and opportunities for participation?
V-E. How can citizens take part in civic life?

Teacher Background
Lead a class discussion, comparing Political Action Committees and Interest Groups before taking students to the computer lab. A brief description of a political action committee can be found at: http://www.encyclopedia.com/html/p1/polactcom.asp

Resource Websites
Lesson 1: http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/political_action_committees.htm and http://dir.yahoo.com/Government/U_S__Government/Politics/Interest_Groups/Political_Action_Committees__PACs_/ (lecture on Political Action Committees)
Lesson 2:
1. http://www.vote-smart.org/index.htm (vote smart website)
2. http://www.fec.gov/ (FEC website)
http://www.encyclopedia.com/html/p1/polactcom.asp (description of a political action committee)
Lesson 3:
1. http://www.ancienttrees.org/ article: example of grassroots lobbying
2. http://www.fiftythings.com/ancient.forests.html: article: example of grassroots lobbying or http://www.jailhurwitz.com/media/butterfly_done/11_media.htm (more printer friendly)
Optional Source: “Act Outside the Box” an essay from the book, 50 Ways to Love Your Country by MoveOn.org.
3. http://www.activism.net/peace/nvcdh/: information on Civil Disobedience



Lesson 1:
Introduce the lesson with a lecture on Political Action Committees and compare them to Interest Groups. http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/political_action_committees.htm is a source of this information. A site for examples of PAC’s can be found at: http://dir.yahoo.com/Government/U_S__Government/Politics/Interest_Groups/Political_Action_Committees__PACs_/

Lesson 2: Take students to the computer lab and copy the following instructions for them to refer to:
1. Go to the vote smart website http://www.vote-smart.org/index.htm to find the following information on their representative and senators:

  • Click to biographical information
  • Click on your state and then one of your senators or your representative.
    a. How long have they been in office?
    b. Are there any environmental or business organizations that they belong to? If so name them.
  • Click to issue positions and then click to environment and energy.
    a. Do they appear to favor more government regulation or less?
    b. Are they more in favor of environment and wildlife preservation or
  • Click to interest group ratings.
    a. Did the representative vote the preferred position of any interest group more than 60% of the time? If so state the name of the group and % of time they voted for the interest group.

2. Have students go to the FEC website http://www.fec.gov/ to find the following information on their representatives and senators:

  • Click to citizen guide
  • Click to search campaign finance data
  • Click to candidate search
  • Click to committees who gave to this candidate
    a. In general what type of committees contributed the most amount of money to this candidate?
    b. List any energy committees or companies that contributed to this candidate.
    c. List any environmental organizations that contributed to this candidate.
    d. Which type of committee appeared to contribute the most?
    e. Is there any correlation between the types of committees that donated money to your representative and their issue positions? Explain.
    Students will hand in their findings at the end of the period.

Lesson 3: Introduce the lesson to the students by briefly lecturing on the difference between grassroots lobbying and civil disobedience and how they compare to corporate lobbying. A good resource on civil disobedience can be found at: http://www.activism.net/peace/nvcdh/

Hand out two articles on grass roots lobbying: “Campaign for Old Growth” and “Logging Activist Celebrates One Year of Living in Tree” (OPTION: “Fifty Things” from http://www.fiftythings.com/ancient.forests.html) could be used in place of the second article) and tell the students that they are going to read an example of grassroots lobbying.

  • 1. After reading the articles have students discuss the following in small groups and record their answers:
    a. What was the purpose of the lobbying activity?
    b. Was Julia Hill successful in achieving her purpose?
    c. Julia Hill was a single activist. How was she able to gain more public support for her cause?
    d. Did Julia Hill participate in civil disobedience? Explain.
    e. What is the best way for grassroots lobbyists to gain media exposure?
    f. Do you believe that grassroots lobbyists are as effective in achieving their goals as are interest groups and corporate lobbyists who have a large amount of financial backing (is money the name of the game)?

Lesson 4:
1. Assign students to groups of 4 (the same groups from the previous lesson, “Can I Be Swayed” (coal energy, nuclear energy, and environment) and assign the following task:

  • a) You are to create a grassroots lobbying activity that will generate awareness for an issue related to your assigned interest.
  • b) You will first work in your groups to brainstorm on a problem related to your topic; all students who represent the coal industry will work in groups of 4 (smaller groups will ensure more student involvement), students who represent the nuclear industry will work in groups of 4, etc.
  • c) After your group has decided on a problem you will fill out the following action plan:

1. State the problem that you want to bring to the attention of the public and policy makers:
2. What are some possible solutions to your problem?
3. What do you want the political officials to do?
4. Describe how you will raise public awareness about your issue and lobby
political officials.
5. List the people and groups you may contact to help you accomplish your goal.

Lesson 4-Period 5
1. Groups will share their action plans with the class.
2. Class will create a list of lobbying techniques that are used by interest groups, corporate
and grassroots lobbyists.
3. Class will prioritize the list: (1) most effective to (10) least effective

Embedded Assessment
Student participation in class discussion should show an understanding of media bias and its impact on public opinion. The homework assignment will also be evaluated.

Tell the students that they are to assume the role of a member of the interest group they were assigned to in the previous lesson to complete the following assignment:

a. Find an article that refutes the arguments that are presented in the article that addresses their viewpoint. For example, the members of the coal industry must find an article that refutes the arguments in “The Hidden Cost of Fossil Fuels”. The members of the nuclear industry must find an article that refutes the arguments in “Nuclear sites put drinking water sources at risk”, and members of the environmental group must refute arguments in the article “Toward Reliable, Affordable and Secure Energy”.

b. Students should write a summary of the article and include a discussion that addresses any biases that are present in the article. They should also discuss how the article best represents their interest group’s point of view.

Embedded Assessment

PULSE is a project of the Community Outreach and Education Program of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center and is funded by:

NIH/NCRR award #16260-01A1
The Community Outreach and Education Program is part of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center: an NIEHS Award


Supported by NIEHS grant # ES06694

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Last update: November 10, 2009
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