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Although voter turnout has declined substantially in the U.S. since the 1960s, the number of interest groups active in lobbying the government has increased dramatically. This chapter examines this growth and the activities of interest groups, why individuals join groups, and what groups get for their efforts.
THE ROLE OF INTEREST GROUPS
An interest group is an organization of people with similar policy goals that tries to influence the political process to try to achieve those goals. In so doing, interest groups try to influence every branch and every level of government. This multiplicity of policy arenas helps distinguish interest groups from political parties. Interest groups may also support candidates for office, but American interest groups do not run their own slate of candidates. Interest groups are often policy specialists, whereas parties are policy generalists. Thus, interest groups do not face the constraint imposed by trying to appeal to everyone (unlike political parties).
Despite their importance to democratic government, interest groups traditionally have had a negative image in America. Even Madison's term faction was general enough to include both parties and groups. There is little doubt that honest lobbying outpaces dishonest lobbying by a wide margin. Ironically, many political scientists now believe that honest lobbying poses greater problems for democracy than dishonest lobbying.
THEORIES OF INTEREST GROUP POLITICS
Understanding the debate over whether honest lobbying creates problems requires an examination of three important theories: (1) pluralist theory argues that interest group activity brings representation to all as groups compete and counterbalance one another; (2) elite theory argues that a few groups (mostly the wealthy) have most of the power; (3) hyperpluralist theory asserts that too many groups are getting too much of what they want, resulting in a government policy that is often contradictory and lacking in direction.
According to pluralist theory, groups win some and lose some, but no group wins or loses all the time. Pluralists do not deny that some groups are stronger than others or that competing interests do not always get an equal hearing, but they argue that lobbying is open to all and should not be regarded as a problem. No one group is likely to become too dominant, and all legitimate groups are able to affect public policy.
Elite theorists maintain that real power is held by relatively few people, key groups, and institutions. Government is run by a few big interests looking out for themselves. Interest groups are extremely unequal in power; thus the preponderance of power held by elites means that pluralist theory does not accurately describe the reality of American politics.
This chapter also explores hyperpluralism and interest group liberalism. Theodore Lowi coined the phrase interest group liberalism to refer to the government's excessive deference to groups. Interest group liberalism holds that virtually all pressure group demands are legitimate and that the job of the government is to advance them all. In an effort to appease every interest, government agencies proliferate, conflicting regulations expand, programs multiply, and the budget skyrockets.
Interest group liberalism is promoted by the network of subgovernments (also known as iron triangles). These subgovernments are composed of key interest groups interested in a particular policy, the government agency in charge of administering the policy, and the members of congressional committees and subcommittees handling the policy. Relations between groups and the government become too cozy. Hard choices about national policy rarely get made as the government tries to favor all groups, leading to policy paralysis. Hyperpluralist theorists often point to the government's contradictory tobacco-related policies as an example of interest group liberalism.
WHAT MAKES AN INTEREST GROUP SUCCESSFUL?
Many factors affect the success of an interest group, including the size of the group, the intensity, and its financial resources. Small groups actually have organizational advantages over large groups. A potential group is composed of all people who might be group members because they share some common interest. An actual group is composed of those in the potential group who choose to join. Groups vary enormously in the degree to which they enroll their potential membership.
A collective good is something of value (such as clean air or a higher minimum wage) that cannot be withheld from a potential group member. Members of the potential group share in benefits that members of the actual group work to secure. The free-rider problem occurs when potential members decide not to join but to sit back and let other people do the work (from which they will nevertheless benefit). According to Olson's law of large groups, the bigger the group, the more serious the free-rider problem.
The primary way for large potential groups to overcome Olson's law is to provide attractive benefits for only those who join the organization. Selective benefits are goods that a group can restrict to those who pay their yearly dues, such as information publications, travel discounts, and group insurance rates.
One way a large potential group may be mobilized is through an issue that people feel intensely about, such as abortion. Both small and large groups enjoy a psychological advantage when intensity is involved. Politicians are more likely to listen when a group shows that it cares deeply about an issue, and many votes may be won or lost on a single issue. One of the biggest indictments of the interest group system is that it is biased toward the wealthy.
THE INTEREST GROUP EXPLOSION
The number of interest groups in the United States has been increasing rapidly over the last several decades. Between 1959 and 2001, the number of groups listed in the Encyclopedia of Associations skyrocketed from about 6,000 to 22,000. The increase in the number of groups reflects a growing diversity in the interest group universe. Whereas trade groups clearly dominated the picture in 1959, this is no longer the case. It seems that there is now an organized group for every conceivable interest. Very few occupations or industries now go without an organized group to represent them in Washington.
HOW GROUPS TRY TO SHAPE POLICY
The three traditional strategies of interest groups are lobbying, electioneering, and litigation. In addition, groups have recently developed a variety of sophisticated techniques to appeal to the public for widespread support.
Lobbyists are political persuaders who are the representatives of organized groups. They normally work in Washington, handling groups' legislative business. Although lobbyists primarily try to influence members of Congress, they can also be of help to them. For example, lobbyists are an important source of specialized information.
Political scientists are not in agreement about the effectiveness of lobbying. Much evidence suggests that lobbyists' power over policy is often exaggerated, but plenty of evidence to the contrary suggests that lobbying can sometimes persuade legislators to support a certain policy. It is difficult to evaluate the specific effects of lobbying because it is hard to isolate its effects from other influences. Like campaigning, lobbying is directed primarily toward activating and reinforcing one's supporters.
Getting the right people into office or keeping them there is another key strategy of interest groups. Many groups therefore get involved in electioneering-aiding candidates financially and getting their members to support them. Political Action Committees (PACs) have provided a means for groups to participate in electioneering more than ever before.
Today, litigation is often used if an interest group fails in Congress or gets only a vague piece of legislation. Environmental legislation, such as the Clean Air Act, typically includes written provisions allowing ordinary citizens to sue for enforcement. Possibly the most famous interest group victories in court were by civil rights groups in the 1950s. These groups won major victories in court cases concerning school desegregation, equal housing, and labor market equality. Consumer groups have also used suits against businesses and federal agencies as a means of enforcing consumer regulations.
One tactic that lawyers employ to make the views of interest groups heard by the judiciary is the filing of amicus curiae ("friend of the court") briefs. A more direct judicial strategy employed by interest groups is the filing of class action lawsuits, which enable a group of people in a similar situation to combine their common grievances into a single suit.
The practice of interest groups appealing to the public for support has a long tradition in American politics. Public opinion ultimately makes its way to policymakers, so interest groups carefully cultivate their public image.
TYPES OF INTEREST GROUPS
Political scientists loosely categorize interest groups into four main policy areas: some deal primarily with economic issues, others with issues of the environment, others with equality issues, and still others with the interests of all consumers. Economic groups are ultimately concerned with wages, prices, and profits. In the American economy, government does not directly determine these factors. More commonly, public policy in America has economic effects through regulations, tax advantages, subsidies and contracts, and international trade policy. Business, labor, and farmers all worry about government regulations. Every economic group wants to get its share of direct aid and government contracts.
Environmental interests have exerted a great deal of influence on Congress and state legislatures. Group politics intensifies when two public interests clash, such as environmental protection and an ensured supply of energy.
Equality interests are those groups representing minorities and women who make equal rights their main policy goal. Equality at the polls, in housing, on the job, in education, and in all other facets of American life has long been the dominant goal of African-American groups, the oldest of which is the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The Nineteenth Amendment (1920) guaranteed women the right to vote, but other guarantees of equal protection for women remain absent from the Constitution. More recently, women's rights groups, such as the National Organization for Women (NOW), have lobbied for an end to sexual discrimination.
Consumers and public interest lobbies (representing groups that champion causes or ideas "in the public interest") are organizations that seek a "collective good," by which everyone should be better off-regardless of whether they joined in the lobbying. Consumer groups have won many legislative victories in recent years, including the creation in 1973 of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (authorized to regulate all consumer products and to ban particularly dangerous ones). Other public interest groups include groups that speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, such as children, animals, and the mentally ill; good-government groups such as Common Cause; religious groups; and environmental groups.
UNDERSTANDING INTEREST GROUPS
The problem of interest groups in America today remains much the same as James Madison defined it over 200 years ago. A free society must allow for the representation of all groups, yet groups are usually more concerned with their own self-interest than with the needs of society as a whole. For democracy to work well, it is important that self-interested groups not be allowed to assume a dominant position.
Madison's solution was to create an open system in which many groups would be able to participate. Groups with opposing interests would counterbalance each other. Pluralist theorists believe that a rough approximation of the public interest emerges from this competition. Elite theorists point to the proliferation of business PACs as evidence of more interest group corruption in American politics than ever. They particularly note that wealthier interests are greatly advantaged by the PAC system. Hyperpluralist theorists feel that government attempts to accommodate all major interest groups led to policy gridlock and the inability for government to initiate major policies.
Hyperpluralist theory thus offers a powerful explanation for the policy gridlock evident in American politics today.
The power of special interest groups through PACs and other means has implications for the scope of government. Most special interest groups strive to maintain established programs that benefit them-and thus promote larger government. Conversely, one can make the argument that the growth of the scope of government in recent decades accounts for a good portion of the proliferation of interest groups. As the federal government has become involved in more areas, more interest groups have risen to influence policy.