Chapter 10 Vocabulary
groups of companies or institutions that organize around a common set of concerns, often within a given industry or trade
a political movement that resembles a grassroots movement but is often supported or facilitated by wealthy interests and/or elites
Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission was a 2010 Supreme Court case that granted corporations and unions the right to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections
something beneficial to all such as public safety or clean air, often initiated by government, that is generally available to the population as a whole
a lobbyist who works for a contract lobbying firm that represents clients before government
the theory that an external event can lead to interest group mobilization
the effect of something working – the belief that you make a difference and that government cares about you and your views
the proposition that wealthy and elite interests are advantaged over those without resources
the result when a large interest group develops diverging needs
free rider problem
the situation that occurs when some individuals receive benefits (get a free ride) without helping to bear the cost
a political movement that often begins from the bottom up, inspired by average citizens concerned about a given issue
an employee or executive within an organization who works as a lobbyist on behalf of the organization
the act of contacting and taking the organization’s message directly to lawmakers in an attempt to influence policy
three-way relationship among congressional committees, interests groups, and the bureaucracy
a group of interest groups and people who work together to support a particular issue or policy
a person employed by a governmental entity such as a local government, executive department, or university to represent the organization before the legislature
a person who represents an organization before government in an attempt to influence policy
substantive monetary or physical benefits given to group members to help overcome collective action problems
an interest group that usually consists of dues-paying members who organize around a particular cause or issue
a person who suggests that all groups’ access and influence depend on the political environment
the act of lobbying indirectly by taking the organization’s message to the public, often through the use of the media and/or by issue press releases, in hopes that the public will then put pressure on lawmakers
a benefit that generally accrues to a narrow segment of society
a person who believes many groups healthily compete for access to decision-makers
public interest group
an interest group that seeks a public good, which is something that accrues to all
benefits to overcome collective action problems that appeal to people’s support of the issue or cause
revolving door laws
laws that require a cooling-off period before government officials can register to lobby after leaving office
money that interests can spend on behalf of candidates without being restricted by federal law
benefits based on the concept that people like to associate with those who are similar to them
sources—including fellow lawmakers, constituents, and interest groups—that lawmakers often use to help them decide how to vote, especially on unfamiliar issues
The 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare, represented a change in the U.S. healthcare system. Given its potential impact, interest group representatives (lobbyists) from the insurance industry, hospitals, medical device manufacturers, and organizations representing doctors, patients, and employers all tried to influence what the law would look like and the way it would operate. Ordinary people took to the streets to voice their opinion. Some state governors sued to prevent a requirement in the law that their states expand Medicaid coverage. A number of interest groups challenged the law in court, where two Supreme Court decisions have left it largely intact.
Interest groups like those for and against the ACA play a fundamental role in representing individuals, corporate interests, and the public before the government. They help inform the public and lawmakers about issues, monitor government actions, and promote policies that benefit their interests, using all three branches of government at the federal, state, and local levels.
In this chapter, we answer several key questions about interest groups. What are they, and why and how do they form? How do they provide avenues for political participation? Why are some groups advantaged by the lobbying of government representatives, while others are disadvantaged? Finally, how do interest groups try to achieve their objectives, and how are they regulated?
10.1 Interest Groups Defined
By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Explain how interest groups differ from political parties
- Evaluate the different types of interests and what they do
- Compare public and private interest groups
While the term interest group is not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, the framers were aware that individuals would band together in an attempt to use government in their favor. In Federalist No. 10, James Madison warned of the dangers of “factions,” minorities who would organize around issues they felt strongly about, possibly to the detriment of the majority. But Madison believed limiting these factions was worse than facing the evils they might produce, because such limitations would violate individual freedoms. Instead, the natural way to control factions was to let them flourish and compete against each other in the open marketplace of public opinion. The sheer number of interests in the United States suggests that many have, indeed, flourished. They compete with similar groups for membership, and with opponents for access to decision-makers. Some people suggest there may be too many interests in the United States. Others argue that some have gained a disproportionate amount of influence over public policy, whereas many others are underrepresented.
Madison’s definition of factions can apply to both interest groups and political parties. But unlike political parties, interest groups do not function primarily to elect candidates under a certain party label or to directly control the operation of the government. Political parties in the United States are generally much broader coalitions that represent a significant proportion of citizens. In the American two-party system, the Democratic and Republican Parties spread relatively wide nets to try to encompass large segments of the population. In contrast, while interest groups may support or oppose political candidates, their goals are usually more issue-specific and narrowly focused on areas like taxes, the environment, and gun rights or gun control, or their membership is limited to specific professions. They may represent interests ranging from well-known organizations, such as the ational Rifle Association (NRA), Sierra Club, IBM, or the American Lung Association, to obscure ones, such as the North Carolina Gamefowl Breeders Association or the Firearms Policy Coalition. Thus, with some notable exceptions, specific interest groups have much more limited membership than do political parties.
Political parties and interest groups both work together and compete for influence, although in different ways. While interest group activity often transcends party lines, many interests are perceived as being more supportive of one party than the other. The American Conservative Union, Citizens United, the National Rifle Association, and National Right to Life are more likely to have relationships with Republican lawmakers than with Democratic ones. Americans for Democratic Action, Moveon.org, and the Democratic Governors Association all have stronger relationships with the Democratic Party. Parties and interest groups do compete with each other, however, often for influence. At the state level, we typically observe an inverse relationship between them in terms of power. Interest groups tend to have greater influence in states where political parties are comparatively weaker.
WHAT ARE INTEREST GROUPS AND WHAT DO THEY WANT?
Definitions abound when it comes to interest groups, which are sometimes referred to as special interests, interest organizations, pressure groups, or just interests. Most definitions specify that interest group indicates any formal association of individuals or organizations that attempt to influence government decision-making and/or the making of public policy. Often, this influence is exercised by a lobbyist or a lobbying firm.
Formally, a lobbyist is someone who represents the interest organization before government, is usually compensated for doing so, and is required to register with the government in which he or she lobbies, whether state or federal. The lobbyist’s primary goal is usually to influence policy. Most interest organizations engage in lobbying activity to achieve their objectives. As you might expect, the interest hires a lobbyist, employs one internally, or has a member volunteer to lobby on its behalf. For present purposes, we might restrict our definition to the relatively broad one in the Lobbying Disclosure Act. This act requires the registration of lobbyists representing any interest group and devoting more than 20 percent of their time to it. Clients and lobbying firms must also register with the federal government based on similar requirements. Moreover, campaign finance laws require disclosure of campaign contributions given to political candidates by organizations.
LINK TO LEARNING
Lobbying is not limited to Washington, DC, however, and many interests lobby there as well as in one or more states. Each state has its own laws describing which individuals and entities must register, so the definitions of lobbyists and interests, and of what lobbying is and who must register to do it, also vary from state to state. Therefore, while a citizen contacting a lawmaker to discuss an issue is generally not viewed as lobbying, an organization that devotes a certain amount of time and resources to contacting lawmakers may be classified as lobbying, depending on local, state, or federal law.
Largely for this reason, there is no comprehensive list of all interest groups to tell us how many there are in the United States. Estimates of the number vary widely, suggesting that if we use a broad definition and include all interests at all levels of government, there may be more than 200,000.
Political scientists have categorized interest groups in a number of ways. First, interest groups may take the form of membership organizations, which individuals join voluntarily and to which they usually pay dues. These ‘grassroots’ membership groups often consist of people who have common issues or concerns, or who want to be with others who share their views. By way of example, the National Rifle Association (NRA) is a “grassroots membership group” consisting of members who believe in and defend the 2nd amendment. One arm of the NRA, The Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) is the lobbying arm of the NRA and is supported and funded by the grassroots members of the NRA.
Interest groups may also form to represent companies, corporate organizations, and governments. These groups do not have individual members but rather are offshoots of corporate or governmental entities with a compelling interest to be represented in front of one or more branches of government. Verizon and Coca-Cola will register to lobby in order to influence policy in a way that benefits them. These corporations will either have one or more in-house lobbyists, who work for one interest group or firm and represent their organization in a lobbying capacity, and/or will hire a contract lobbyist, individuals who work for firms that represent a multitude of clients and are often hired because of their resources and their ability to contact and lobby lawmakers, to represent them before the legislature.
Governments such as municipalities and executive departments such as the Department of Education register to lobby in an effort to maximize their share of budgets or increase their level of autonomy. These government institutions are represented by a legislative liaison, whose job is to present issues to decision-makers. For example, a state university usually employs a lobbyist, legislative liaison, or government affairs person to represent its interests before the legislature. This includes lobbying for a given university’s share of the budget or for its continued autonomy from lawmakers and other state-level officials who may attempt to play a greater oversight role.
Universities may lobby for research funds from government departments. For example, the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security may be willing to fund scientific research that might better enable them to defend the nation.
Interest groups also include associations, which are typically groups of institutions that join with others, often within the same trade or industry (trade associations), and have similar concerns. The American Beverage Association includes Coca-Cola, Red Bull North America, ROCKSTAR, and Kraft Foods. Despite the fact that these companies are competitors, they have common interests related to the manufacturing, bottling, and distribution of beverages, as well as the regulation of their business activities. The logic is that there is strength in numbers, and if members can lobby for tax breaks or eased regulations for an entire industry, they may all benefit. These common goals do not, however, prevent individual association members from employing in-house lobbyists or contract lobbying firms to represent their own business or organization as well. Indeed, many members of associations are competitors who also seek representation individually before the legislature.
LINK TO LEARNING
Visit the website of an association like the American Beverage Association or the American Bankers Association and look over the key issues it addresses. Do any of the issues it cares about surprise you? What areas do you think members can agree about? Are there issues on which the membership might disagree? Why would competitors join together when they normally compete for business?
Finally, sometimes individuals volunteer to represent an organization. They are called amateur or volunteer lobbyists and are typically not compensated for their lobbying efforts. In some cases, citizens may lobby for pet projects because they care about some issue or cause. They may or may not be members of an interest group, but if they register to lobby, they are sometimes nicknamed “hobbyists.”
Lobbyists representing a variety of organizations employ different techniques to achieve their objectives. One method is inside lobbying or direct lobbying, which takes the interest group’s message directly to a government official such as a lawmaker. Inside lobbying tactics include testifying in legislative hearings and helping to draft legislation. Numerous surveys of lobbyists have confirmed that the vast majority rely on these inside strategies. For example, nearly all report that they contact lawmakers, testify before the legislature, help draft legislation, and contact executive agencies. Trying to influence government appointments or providing favors to members of government are somewhat less common insider tactics.
Many lobbyists also use outside lobbying or indirect lobbying tactics, whereby the interest attempts to get its message out to the public. These tactics include issuing press releases, placing stories and articles in the media, entering coalitions with other groups, and contacting interest group members, hoping that they will individually pressure lawmakers to support or oppose legislation. An environmental interest group like the Sierra Club, for example, might issue a press release or encourage its members to contact their representatives in Congress about legislation of concern to the group. It might also use outside tactics if there is a potential threat to the environment and the group wants to raise awareness among its members and the public.
Members of Congress are likely to pay attention when many constituents contact them about an issue or proposed bill. Many interest groups, including the Sierra Club, will use a combination of inside and outside tactics in their lobbying efforts, choosing whatever strategy is most likely to help them achieve their goals.
The primary goal of most interests, no matter their lobbying approach, is to influence decision-makers and public policies. For example, National Right to Life, an anti-abortion interest group, lobbies to encourage government to enact laws that restrict abortion access. Environmental interests like the Sierra Club lobby for laws designed to protect natural resources and minimize the use of pollutants. On the other hand, some interests lobby to reduce regulations that an organization might view as burdensome. Air and water quality regulations thought to improve or protect the environment may be viewed as onerous by industries that discharge some level of pollutants as a byproduct of their production or manufacturing process.
The word onerous comes from the Latin onerosus, meaning burdensome, heavy, or oppressive.
Other interests lobby for budgetary allocations; the farm lobby, for example, pressures Congress to secure new farm subsidies or maintain existing ones.
Farm subsidies are payments or other kinds of support such as crop insurance given to farmers (or agribusinesses) by the government. These payments were originally intended to provide economic stability to farmers during the Great Depression (1930s) and to ensure a steady supply of domestically grown food for Americans. Some people argue that farm subsidies are not needed and are a type of welfare and that they hurt small family farms. If you are curious, you may want to search YouTube for some videos that talk about farm subsidies.
Optional video of one farmer’s “rant” about farm subsidies:
Farm subsidies are given to some farmers because they grow certain crops and to other farmers so they will not grow certain crops. As expected, any bill that might attempt to alter these subsidies raises the antennae of many agricultural interests.
INTEREST GROUP FUNCTIONS
While influencing policy is the primary goal, interest groups also monitor government activity, serve as a means of political participation for members, and provide information to the public and to lawmakers. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, by November 2015, thirty-six states had laws requiring that voters provide identification at the polls. A civil rights group like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) will keep track of proposed voter-identification bills in state legislatures that might have an effect on voting rights. This organization will contact lawmakers to voice approval or disapproval of proposed legislation (inside lobbying) and encourage group members to take action by either donating money to it or contacting lawmakers about the proposed bill (outside lobbying). Thus, a member of the organization or a citizen concerned about voting rights need not be an expert on the legislative process or the technical or legal details of a proposed bill to be informed about potential threats to voting rights. Other interest groups function in similar ways. For example, the NRA monitors attempts by state legislatures to tighten gun control laws.
Interest groups facilitate political participation in a number of ways. Some members become active within a group, working on behalf of the organization to promote its agenda. Some interests work to increase membership, inform the public about issues the group deems important, or organize rallies and promote get-out-the-vote efforts. Sometimes groups will utilize events to mobilize existing members or encourage new members to join. Interest groups also organize letter-writing campaigns, stage protests, and sometimes hold fundraisers for their cause or even for political campaigns.
Some interests are more broadly focused than others. AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons) has approximately thirty-seven million members and advocates for individuals fifty and over on a variety of issues including health care, insurance, employment, financial security, and consumer protection. This organization represents both liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, and many who do not identify with these categorizations. On the other hand, the Association of Black Cardiologists is a much smaller and far-narrower organization. Over the last several decades, some interest groups have sought greater specialization and have even fragmented. As you may imagine, the Association of Black Cardiologists is more specialized than the American Medical Association, which tries to represent all physicians regardless of race or specialty.
PUBLIC VS. PRIVATE INTEREST GROUPS
Interest groups and organizations represent both private and public interests in the United States. Private interests usually seek particularized benefits from government that favor either a single interest or a narrow set of interests. For example, corporations and political institutions may lobby government for tax exemptions, fewer regulations, or favorable laws that benefit individual companies or an industry more generally. Their goal is to promote private goods. Private goods are items individuals can own, including corporate profits. A car is a private good; when you purchase it, you receive ownership.
On the other hand, public interest groups attempt to promote public, or collective, goods. Such collective goods are benefits—tangible or intangible—that help most or all citizens. These goods are often produced collectively, and because they may not be profitable and everyone may not agree on what public goods are best for society, they are often underfunded and thus will be underproduced unless there is government involvement. The Tennessee Valley Authority, a government corporation, provides electricity in some places where it is not profitable for private firms to do so.
Here’s a quick, optional history video explaining the TVA:
Other examples of collective goods are public safety, highway safety, public education, and environmental protection. With some exceptions, if an environmental interest promotes clean air or water, most or all citizens are able to enjoy the result. So, if the Sierra Club encourages Congress to pass legislation that improves national air quality, citizens receive the benefit regardless of whether they are members of the organization or even support the legislation. Many environmental groups are public interest groups that lobby for and raise awareness of issues that affect large segments of the population.
As the clean air example above suggests, collective goods are generally nonexcludable, meaning all or most people are entitled to the public good and cannot be prevented from enjoying it. Furthermore, collective goods are generally not subject to crowding, so that even as the population increases, people still have access to the entire public good. Thus, the military does not protect citizens only in Texas and Maryland while neglecting those in New York and Idaho, but instead it provides the collective good of national defense equally to citizens in all states. As another example, even as more cars use a public roadway, under most circumstances, additional drivers still have the option of using the same road though hHigh-occupancy vehicle lanes may restrict some lanes of a highway for drivers who cannot carpool.
10.2 Collective Action and Interest Group Formation
By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Explain the concept of collective action and its effect on interest group formation
- Describe free riding and the reasons it occurs
- Discuss ways to overcome collective action problems
In any group project in which you have participated, you may have noticed that a small number of people may have done the bulk of the work while others did very little. Yet everyone received the same grade. Why do some do all the work, while others do little or none? How is it possible to get people to work when there is a disincentive to do so? This situation is an example of a collective action problem, and it exists in government as well as in public and private organizations. Whether it is Congress trying to pass a budget or an interest group trying to motivate members to contact lawmakers, organizations must overcome collective action problems to be productive. This is especially true of interest groups, whose formation and survival depend on members doing the necessary work to keep the group funded and operating.
COLLECTIVE ACTION AND FREE RIDING
Collective action problems exist when people have a disincentive to take action. In his classic work, The Logic of Collective Action, economist Mancur Olson discussed the conditions under which collective actions problems would exist, and he noted that they were prevalent among organized interests. People tend not to act when the perceived benefit is insufficient to justify the costs associated with engaging in the action. Many citizens may have concerns about the appropriate level of taxation, gun control, or environmental protection, but these concerns are not necessarily strong enough for them to become politically active. In fact, most people take no action on most issues, either because they do not feel strongly enough or because their action will likely have little bearing on whether a given policy is adopted. Thus, there is a disincentive to call your member of Congress, because rarely will a single phone call sway a politician on an issue.
Why do some people elect to do little on a group project? The answer is that they likely prefer to do something else and realize they can receive the same benefits as the rest of the group without contributing to the effort. This result is often termed the free rider problem because some individuals can receive benefits (get a free ride) without helping to bear the cost.
When National Public Radio (NPR) engages in a fund-raising effort to help maintain the station, many listeners will not contribute. Since it is unlikely that any one listener’s donation will be decisive in whether NPR has adequate funding to continue to operate, most listeners will not contribute to the costs but instead will free ride and continue to receive the benefits of listening.
Collective action problems and free riding occur in many other situations as well. If union membership is optional and all workers will receive a salary increase regardless of whether they make the time and money commitment to join, some workers may free ride. The benefits sought by unions, such as higher wages, collective bargaining rights, and safer working conditions, are often enjoyed by all workers regardless of whether they are members. Therefore, free riders can receive the benefit of the pay increase without helping defray the cost by paying dues, striking, attending meetings or rallies, or joining protests, like that shown in the picture to the left.
If free riding is so prevalent, why are there so many interest groups and why is interest group membership so high in the United States? One reason is that free riding can be overcome in a variety of ways. Olson argued, for instance, that some groups are better able than others to surmount collective action problems. They can sometimes maintain themselves by obtaining financial support from patrons outside the group. Groups with financial resources have an advantage in mobilizing in that they can offer incentives or hire a lobbyist. Smaller, well-organized groups also have an advantage. For one thing, opinions within smaller groups may be more similar, making it easier to reach consensus. It is also more difficult for members to free ride in a smaller group. In comparison, larger groups have a greater number of individuals and therefore more viewpoints to consider, making consensus more difficult. It may also be easier to free ride because it is less obvious in a large group when any single person does not contribute. However, if people do not lobby for their own interests, they may find that they are ignored, especially if smaller but more active groups with interests opposed to theirs lobby on behalf of themselves. Even though the United States is a constitutional republic, policy is often made to suit the interests of the few instead of the needs of the many with enough political pressure.
Group leaders also play an important role in overcoming collective action problems. For instance, political scientist Robert Salisbury suggests that group leaders will offer incentives to induce activity among individuals. Some offer material incentives, which are tangible benefits of joining a group. AARP, for example, offers discounts on hotel accommodations and insurance rates for its members, while dues are very low, so they can actually save money by joining. Group leaders may also offer solidary incentives, which provide the benefit of joining with others who have the same concerns or are similar in other ways. Some scholars suggest that people are naturally drawn to others with similar concerns. The NAACP is a civil rights group concerned with promoting equality and eliminating discrimination based on race, and members may join to associate with others who have dealt with issues of inequality.
The word solidary comes from the Latin solidus meaning firm, whole, or undivided.
Solidarity is an awareness of shared interests, objectives, standards, and sympathies creating a sense of unity of groups. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solidarity
Similarly, purposive incentives focus on the issues or causes promoted by the group. Someone concerned about protecting individual rights might join a group like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) because it supports the liberties guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution, even the free expression of unpopular views. Members of the ACLU sometimes find the messages of those they defend (including Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan) deplorable, but they argue that the principle of protecting civil liberties is critical to U.S. democracy.
In many ways, the organization’s stance is analogous to James Madison’s defense of factions mentioned earlier in this chapter. A commitment to protecting rights and liberties can serve as an incentive in overcoming collective action problems, because members or potential members care enough about the issues to join or participate. Thus, interest groups and their leadership will use whatever incentives they have at their disposal to overcome collective action problems and mobilize their members.
Finally, sometimes collective action problems are overcome because there is little choice about whether to join an organization. For example, some organizations may require membership in order to participate in a profession. To practice law, individuals may be required to join the American Bar Association or a state bar association. In the past, union membership could be required of workers, particularly in urban areas controlled by political machines consisting of a combination of parties, elected representatives, and interest groups.
DISTURBANCE THEORY AND COLLECTIVE ACTION
In addition to the factors discussed above that can help overcome collective action problems, external events can sometimes help mobilize groups and potential members. Some scholars argue that disturbance theory can explain why groups mobilize due to an event in the political, economic, or social environment.
For example, in 1962, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, a book exposing the dangers posed by pesticides such as DDT. The book served as a catalyst for individuals worried about the environment and the potential dangers of pesticides. The result was an increase in both the number of environmental interest groups, such as Greenpeace and American Rivers, and the number of members within them.
In 2014, Ferguson, Missouri, erupted in protests and riots following a decision not to indict Darren Wilson, a white police officer, in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, who had allegedly been involved in a theft at a local convenience store and ended up in a dispute with the officer. The incident mobilized groups representing civil rights, such as the protestors, as well as others supporting the interests of police officers.
Both the Silent Spring and Ferguson examples demonstrate the idea that people will naturally join groups in response to disturbances. Some mobilization efforts develop more slowly and may require the efforts of group leaders. Sometimes political candidates can push issues to the forefront, which may result in interest group mobilization. The recent focus on immigration, for example, has resulted in the mobilization of those in support of restrictive policies as well as those opposed to them. Rather than being a single disturbance, debate about immigration policy has ebbed and flowed in recent years, creating what might best be described as a series of minor disturbances.
10.3 Interest Groups as Political Participation
By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Analyze how interest groups provide a means for political participation
- Discuss recent changes to interest groups and the way they operate in the United States
Interest groups offer individuals an important avenue for political participation. Tea Party protests, for instance, gave individuals all over the country the opportunity to voice their opposition to government actions and control. Likewise, the Occupy Wall Street movement also gave a voice to those individuals frustrated with the influence of large corporations on the public sector. Individually, the protestors would likely have received little notice, but by joining with others, they drew substantial attention in the media and from lawmakers. While the Tea Party movement might not meet the definition of interest groups presented earlier, its aims have been promoted by established interest groups. Other opportunities for participation that interest groups offer or encourage include voting, campaigning, contacting lawmakers, and informing the public about causes.
GROUP PARTICIPATION AS CIVIC ENGAGEMENT
Joining interest groups can help facilitate civic engagement, which allows people to feel more connected to the political and social community. Some interest groups develop as grassroots movements, which often begin from the bottom up among a small number of people at the local level. Grassroots movements are associated with bottom-up, rather than top-down decision making, and are sometimes considered more natural or spontaneous than more traditional power structures.
An astroturf movement is a fake grassroots movement. It is the practice of masking the sponsors of a message or organization (e.g., political, advertising, religious or public relations) to make it appear as though it originates from and is supported by grassroots participants.
It is a practice intended to give the statements or organizations credibility by withholding information about the source’s financial connection. The term astroturfing is derived from AstroTurf, a brand of synthetic carpeting designed to resemble natural grass, as a play on the word “grassroots”. The implication behind the use of the term is that instead of a “true” or “natural” grassroots effort behind the activity in question, there is a “fake” or “artificial” appearance of support.
According to political scientists Jeffrey Berry and Clyde Wilcox, interest groups provide a means of representing people and serve as a link between them and government. Interest groups also allow people to actively work on an issue in an effort to influence public policy. Another function of interest groups is to help educate the public. Someone concerned about the environment may not need to know what an acceptable level of sulfur dioxide is in the air, but by joining an environmental interest group, he or she can remain informed when air quality is poor or threatened by legislative action.
Interest groups also help frame issues, usually in a way that best benefits their cause. Abortion rights advocates often use the term “pro-choice” to frame abortion as an individual’s private choice to be made free of government interference, while an anti-abortion group might use the term “pro-life” to frame its position as protecting the life of the unborn.
Interest groups also try to get issues on the government agenda, and they monitor a variety of government programs. Following the passage of the Affordable Care Act, numerous interest groups have been monitoring the implementation of the law, hoping to use successes and failures to justify their respective positions for and against the legislation.
TRENDS IN PUBLIC INTEREST GROUP FORMATION AND ACTIVITY
A number of changes in interest groups have taken place over the last three or four decades in the United States. The most significant change is the tremendous increase in both the number and type of groups. Political scientists often examine the diversity of registered groups, in part to determine how well they reflect the variety of interests in society. Some areas may be dominated by certain industries, while others may reflect a multitude of interests. Some interests appear to have increased at greater rates than others. For example, the number of institutions and corporate interests has increased both in Washington and in the states. Telecommunication companies like Verizon and AT&T will lobby Congress for laws beneficial to their businesses, but they also target the states because state legislatures make laws that can benefit or harm their activities. There has also been an increase in the number of public interest groups that represent the public as opposed to economic interests. U.S. PIRG is a public interest group that represents the public on issues including public health, the environment, and consumer protection.
What are the reasons for the increase in the number of interest groups? In some cases, it simply reflects new interests in society. Forty years ago, stem cell research was not an issue on the government agenda, but as science and technology advanced, its techniques and possibilities became known to the media and the public, and a number of interests began lobbying for and against this type of research. Medical research firms and medical associations will lobby in favor of greater spending and increased research on stem cell research, while some religious organizations and anti-abortion groups will oppose it. As societal attitudes change and new issues develop, and as the public becomes aware of them, we can expect to see the rise of interests addressing them.
The devolution of power also explains some of the increase in the number and type of interests, at least at the state level. As power and responsibility shifted to state governments in the 1980s, the states began to handle responsibilities that had been under the jurisdiction of the federal government. A number of federal welfare programs, for example, are generally administered at the state level. This means interests might be better served targeting their lobbying efforts in Albany, Raleigh, Austin, or Sacramento, rather than only in Washington, DC. As the states have become more active in more policy areas, they have become prime targets for interests wanting to influence policy in their favor.
We have also seen increased specialization by some interests and even fragmentation of existing interests. While the American Medical Association may take a stand on stem cell research, the issue is not critical to the everyday activities of many of its members. On the other hand, stem cell research is highly salient to members of the American Neurological Association, an interest organization that represents academic neurologists and neuroscientists. Accordingly, different interests represent the more specialized needs of different specialties within the medical community, but fragmentation can occur when a large interest like this has diverging needs.
None of this suggests that an unlimited number of interests can exist in society. The size of the economy has a bearing on the number of interests, but only up to a certain point, after which the number increases at a declining rate. As we will see below, the limit on the number of interests depends on the available resources and levels of competition.
Over the last few decades, we have also witnessed an increase in professionalization in lobbying and in the sophistication of lobbying techniques. This was not always the case, because lobbying was not considered a serious profession in the mid-twentieth century. Over the past three decades, there has been an increase in the number of contract lobbying firms. These firms are often effective because they bring significant resources to the table, their lobbyists are knowledgeable about the issues on which they lobby, and they may have existing relationships with lawmakers. In fact, relationships between lobbyists and legislators are often ongoing, and these are critical if lobbyists want access to lawmakers. However, not every interest can afford to hire high-priced contract lobbyists to represent it. You can see in the table below that a great deal of money is spent on lobbying activities.
Top Lobbying Firms in 2021 – This table lists the top twenty U.S. lobbying firms in 2014 as determined by total lobbying income. Click on the firm names to see who hired them and for how much. (Data is from opensecrets.org)
|Lobbying Firm||Total Income|
|Brownstein, Hyatt et al||$55,640,000|
|Akin, Gump et al||$53,230,000|
|Holland & Knight||$34,800,000|
|Cornerstone Government Affairs||$34,380,000|
|Forbes Tate Partners||$24,420,000|
|Squire Patton Boggs||$24,290,000|
|Mehlman, Castagnetti et al||$22,600,000|
|Cassidy & Assoc||$20,440,000|
|Tiber Creek Group||$19,500,000|
|Thorn Run Partners||$18,930,000|
|Van Scoyoc Assoc||$18,340,000|
|Covington & Burling||$17,333,000|
We have also seen greater limits on inside lobbying activities. In the past, many lobbyists were described as “good ol’ boys” who often provided gifts or other favors in exchange for political access or other considerations. Today, restrictions limit the types of gifts and benefits lobbyists can bestow on lawmakers. There are certainly fewer “good ol’ boy” lobbyists, and many lobbyists are now full-time professionals. The regulation of lobbying is addressed in greater detail below.
10.4 Pathways of Interest Group Influence
By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Describe how interest groups influence the government through elections
- Explain how interest groups influence the government
Many people criticize the huge amounts of money spent in politics. Some argue that interest groups have too much influence on who wins elections, while others suggest influence is also problematic when interests try to sway politicians in office. There is little doubt that interest groups often try to achieve their objectives by influencing elections and politicians but discovering whether they have succeeded in changing minds is actually challenging because they tend to support those who already agree with them.
INFLUENCE IN ELECTIONS
Interest groups support candidates who are sympathetic to their views in hopes of gaining access to them once they are in office. For example, an organization like the NRA will back candidates who support Second Amendment rights. Both the NRA and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence (an interest group that tries to elect candidates and lobbies for numerous restrictions on the Second Amendment) have grading systems that evaluate candidates and states based on their records of supporting these organizations. To garner the support of the NRA, candidates must receive an high rating for the group. In much the same way, Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal interest group, and the American Conservative Union, a conservative interest group, both rate politicians based on their voting records on issues these organizations view as important.
These ratings, and those of many other groups, are useful for interests and the public in deciding which candidates to support and which to oppose. Incumbents have electoral advantages in terms of name recognition, experience, and fundraising abilities, and they often receive support because interest groups want access to the candidate who is likely to win. Some interest groups will offer support to the challenger, particularly if the challenger better aligns with the interest’s views or the incumbent is vulnerable. Sometimes, interest groups even hedge their bets and give to both major party candidates for a particular office in the hopes of having access regardless of who wins.
Some interest groups form political action committees (PACs), groups that collect funds from donors and distribute them to candidates who support their issues. As the graphic below makes apparent, many large corporations like Honeywell International, AT&T, and Lockheed Martin form PACs to distribute money to candidates. Other PACs are either politically or ideologically oriented. For example, the MoveOn.org PAC is a progressive group that formed following the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, whereas GOPAC is a Republican PAC that promotes state and local candidates of that party. PACs are limited in the amount of money that they can contribute to individual candidates or to national party organizations; they can contribute no more than $5,000 per candidate per election and no more than $15,000 a year to a national political party. Individual contributions to PACs are also limited to $5,000 a year.
PACs through which corporations and unions can spend virtually unlimited amounts of money on behalf of political candidates are called super PACs. As a result of a 2010 Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, there is no limit to how much money unions or corporations can donate to super PACs.
Unlike PACs, however, super PACs cannot contribute money directly to individual candidates. If the 2014 elections were any indication, super PACs will continue to spend large sums of money in an attempt to influence future election results.
INFLUENCING GOVERNMENTAL POLICY
Interest groups support candidates in order to have access to lawmakers once they are in office. Lawmakers, for their part, lack the time and resources to pursue every issue; they are policy generalists. Therefore, they (and their staff members) rely on interest groups and lobbyists to provide them with information about the technical details of policy proposals, as well as about fellow lawmakers’ stands and constituents’ perceptions. These voting cues give lawmakers an indication of how to vote on issues, particularly those with which they are unfamiliar. But lawmakers also rely on lobbyists for information about ideas they can champion and that will benefit them when they run for reelection.
Interest groups likely cannot target all 535 lawmakers in both the House and the Senate, nor would they wish to do so. There is little reason for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence to lobby members of Congress from Idaho who vehemently oppose any restrictions on gun access. Instead, the organization will often contact lawmakers who are amenable to some restrictions on access to firearms like those in California. Thus, interest groups first target lawmakers they think will consider introducing or sponsoring legislation in their favor.
Second, they target members of relevant committees. If a company that makes aircraft weapons systems wants to influence a defense bill, it will lobby members of the Armed Services Committees in the House and the Senate or the House and Senate appropriations committees if the bill requires new funding. Many members of these committees represent congressional districts with military bases, so they often sponsor or champion bills that allow them to promote policies popular with their districts or state. Interest groups attempt to use this to their advantage. But they also conduct strategic targeting because legislatures function by respectfully considering fellow lawmakers’ positions. Since lawmakers cannot possess expertise on every issue, they defer to their trusted colleagues on issues with which they are unfamiliar. So, targeting committee members also allows the lobbyist to inform other lawmakers indirectly.
Third, interest groups target lawmakers when legislation is on the floor of the House and/or Senate, but again, they rely on the fact that many members will defer to their colleagues who are more familiar with a given issue. Finally, since legislation must past both chambers in identical form, interest groups may target members of the conference committees whose job it is to iron out differences across the chambers. At this negotiation stage, a 1 percent difference in, say, the corporate income tax rate could mean millions of dollars in increased or decreased revenue or taxation for various interests.
Interest groups also target the budgetary process in order to maximize benefits to their group. In some cases, their aim is to influence the portion of the budget allocated to a given policy, program, or policy area. For example, interests for groups that represent the poor may lobby for additional appropriations for various welfare programs; those interests opposed to government assistance to the poor may lobby for reduced funding to certain programs.
Interest groups also try to defeat legislation that may be detrimental to their views. For example, when Congress considers legislation to improve air quality, it is not unusual for some industries to oppose it if it requires additional regulations on factory emissions. In some cases, proposed legislation may serve as a disturbance, resulting in group formation or mobilization to help defeat the bill. For example, a proposed tax increase may result in the formation or mobilization of anti-tax groups that will lobby the legislature and try to encourage the public to oppose the proposed legislation. Prior to the election in 2012, political activist Grover Norquist, the founder of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), asked all Republican members of Congress to sign a “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” that they would fight efforts to raise taxes or to eliminate any deductions that were not accompanied by tax cuts. Ninety-five percent of the Republicans in Congress signed the pledge. Some interests arise solely to defeat legislation and go dormant after they achieve their immediate objectives.
Once legislation has been passed, interest groups may target the executive branch of government, whose job is to implement the law. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has some leeway in providing care for military veterans, and interests representing veterans’ needs may pressure this department to address their concerns or issues. Other entities within the executive branch, like the Securities and Exchange Commission, which maintains and regulates financial markets, are not designed to be responsive to the interests they regulate, because to make such a response would be a conflict of interest. Interest groups may lobby the executive branch on executive, judicial, and other appointments that require Senate confirmation. As a result, interest group members may be appointed to positions in which they can influence proposed regulation of the industry of which they are a part.
In addition to lobbying the legislative and executive branches of government, many interest groups also lobby the judicial branch. Lobbying the judiciary takes two forms, the first of which was mentioned above. This is lobbying the executive branch about judicial appointments the president makes and lobbying the Senate to confirm these appointments. The second form of lobbying is not ‘called’ lobbying. It consists of filing special papers with the courts about individual cases. These briefs, called amicus briefs, which are also known as “friend of the court” briefs.
These documents present legal arguments stating why a given court should take a case and/or why a court should rule a certain way. In Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), the Supreme Court case that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, numerous interest groups filed amicus briefs. For example, the Human Rights Campaign filed a brief arguing that the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process and equal protection clauses required that same-sex couples be afforded the same rights to marry as opposite-sex couples. In a 5–4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed.
Measuring the effect of interest groups’ influence is somewhat difficult because lobbyists support lawmakers who would likely have supported them in the first place. Thus, National Right to Life, an anti-abortion interest group, does not generally lobby lawmakers who favor abortion rights; instead, it supports lawmakers and candidates who have professed “pro-life” positions. While some scholars note that lobbyists sometimes try to influence those on the fence or even their enemies, most of the time, they support like-minded individuals. Thus, contributions are unlikely to sway lawmakers to change their views; what they do buy is access, including time with lawmakers. The problem for those trying to assess whether interest groups influence lawmakers, then, is that we are uncertain what would happen in the absence of interest group contributions.
10.5 Free Speech and the Regulation of Interest Groups
By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Identify the various court cases, policies, and laws that outline what interest groups can and cannot do
- Evaluate the arguments for and against whether contributions are a form of freedom of speech
How are lobbying and interest group activity regulated? As we noted earlier in the chapter, James Madison viewed political factions as a necessary evil and thought preventing people from joining together would be worse than any ills groups might cause. The First Amendment guarantees, among other things, freedom of speech, petition, and assembly. However, people have different views on how far this freedom extends. For example, should freedom of speech as afforded to individuals in the U.S. Constitution also apply to corporations and unions? To what extent can and should government restrict the activities of lobbyists and lawmakers, limiting who may lobby and how they may do it?
INTEREST GROUPS AND FREE SPEECH
Most people would agree that interest groups have a right under the Constitution to promote a particular point of view. What people do not necessarily agree upon, however, is the extent to which certain interest groups and lobbying activities are protected under the First Amendment.
In addition to free speech rights, the First Amendment grants people the right to assemble. We saw above that pluralists even argued that assembling in groups is natural and that people will gravitate toward others with similar views. Most people acknowledge the right of others to assemble to voice unpopular positions, but this was not always the case. At various times, groups representing racial and religious minorities, communists, and members of the LGBT community have had their First Amendment rights to speech and assembly curtailed. And as noted above, organizations like the ACLU support free speech rights regardless of whether the speech is popular.
Today, the debate about interest groups often revolves around whether the First Amendment protects the rights of individuals and groups to give money, and whether government can regulate the use of this money. In 1971, the Federal Election Campaign Act was passed, setting limits on how much presidential and vice-presidential candidates and their families could donate to their own campaigns. The law also allowed corporations and unions to form PACs and required public disclosure of campaign contributions and their sources. In 1974, the act was amended in an attempt to limit the amount of money spent on congressional campaigns. The amended law banned the transfer of union, corporate, and trade association money to parties for distribution to campaigns.
In Buckley v. Valeo (1976), the Supreme Court upheld Congress’s right to regulate elections by restricting contributions to campaigns and candidates.
However, at the same time, it overturned restrictions on expenditures by candidates and their families, as well as total expenditures by campaigns. In 1979, an exemption was granted to get-out-the vote and grassroots voter registration drives, creating what has become known as the soft-money loophole; soft money was a way in which interests could spend money on behalf of candidates without being restricted by federal law. To close this loophole, Senators John McCain and Russell Feingold sponsored the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act in 2002 to ban parties from collecting and distributing unregulated money.
Some continued to argue that campaign expenditures are a form of speech, a position with which two recent Supreme Court decisions are consistent. The Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and the McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission cases opened the door for a substantially greater flow of money into elections. Citizens United overturned the soft money ban of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act and allowed corporations and unions to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections. Essentially, the Supreme Court argued in a 5–4 decision that these entities had free speech rights, much like individuals, and that free speech included campaign spending. The McCutcheon decision further extended spending allowances based on the First Amendment by striking down aggregate contribution limits. These limits put caps on the total contributions allowed and some say have contributed to a subsequent increase in groups and lobbying activities.
REGULATING LOBBYING AND INTEREST GROUP ACTIVITY
While the Supreme Court has paved the way for increased spending in politics, lobbying is still regulated in many ways. The 1995 Lobbying Disclosure Act defined who can and cannot lobby and requires lobbyists and interest groups to register with the federal government. The Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 further increased restrictions on lobbying. For example, the act prohibited contact between members of Congress and lobbyists who were the spouses of other Congress members. The laws broadened the definition of lobbyist and require detailed disclosure of spending on lobbying activity, including who is lobbied and what bills are of interest. In addition, President Obama’s Executive Order 13490 prohibited appointees in the executive branch from accepting gifts from lobbyists and banned them from participating in matters, including the drafting of any contracts or regulations, involving the appointee’s former clients or employer for a period of two years. The states also have their own registration requirements, with some defining lobbying broadly and others more narrowly.
Second, the federal and state governments prohibit certain activities like providing gifts to lawmakers and compensating lobbyists with commissions for successful lobbying. Many activities are prohibited to prevent accusations of vote buying or currying favor with lawmakers. Some states, for example, have strict limits on how much money lobbyists can spend on lobbying lawmakers, or on the value of gifts lawmakers can accept from lobbyists. According to the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, lobbyists must certify that they have not violated the law regarding gift giving, and the penalty for knowingly violating the law increased from a fine of $50,000 to one of $200,000. Also, revolving door laws also prevent lawmakers from lobbying government immediately after leaving public office. Members of the House of Representatives cannot register to lobby for a year after they leave office, while senators have a two-year “cooling off” period before they can officially lobby. Former cabinet secretaries must wait the same period of time after leaving their positions before lobbying the department of which they had been the head.
These laws are designed to restrict former lawmakers from using their connections in government to give them an advantage when lobbying. Still, many former lawmakers do become lobbyists.
Third, governments require varying levels of disclosure about the amount of money spent on lobbying efforts. The logic here is that lawmakers will think twice about accepting money from controversial donors. The other advantage to disclosure requirements is that they promote transparency. Many have argued that the public has a right to know where candidates get their money. Candidates may be reluctant to accept contributions from donors affiliated with unpopular interests such as hate groups. This was one of the key purposes of the Lobbying Disclosure Act and comparable laws at the state level.
Finally, there are penalties for violating the law. Lobbyists and, in some cases, government officials can be fined, banned from lobbying, or even sentenced to prison. While state and federal laws spell out what activities are legal and illegal, the attorneys general and prosecutors responsible for enforcing lobbying regulations may be understaffed, have limited budgets, or face backlogs of work, making it difficult for them to investigate or prosecute alleged transgressions. While most lobbyists do comply with the law, exactly how the laws alter behavior is not completely understood. We know the laws prevent lobbyists from engaging in certain behaviors, such as by limiting campaign contributions or preventing the provision of certain gifts to lawmakers, but how they alter lobbyists’ strategies and tactics remains unclear.
The need to strictly regulate the actions of lobbyists became especially relevant after the activities of lobbyist Jack Abramoff were brought to light. A prominent lobbyist with ties to many of the Republican members of Congress, Abramoff used funds provided by his clients to fund reelection campaigns, pay for trips, and hire the spouses of members of Congress. Between 1994 and 2001, Abramoff, who then worked as a lobbyist for a prominent law firm, paid for eighty-five members of Congress to travel to the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory in the Pacific. The territory’s government was a client of the firm for which he worked. At the time, Abramoff was lobbying Congress to exempt the Northern Mariana Islands from paying the federal minimum wage and to allow the territory to continue to operate sweatshops in which people worked in deplorable conditions. In 2000, while representing Native American casino interests who sought to defeat anti-gambling legislation, Abramoff paid for a trip to Scotland for Tom DeLay, the majority whip in the House of Representatives, and an aide.
Shortly thereafter, DeLay helped to defeat anti-gambling legislation in the House. He also hired DeLay’s wife Christine to research the favorite charity of each member of Congress and paid her $115,000 for her efforts. In 2008, Jack Abramoff was sentenced to four years in prison for tax evasion, fraud, and corruption of public officials. He was released early, in December 2010.