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Interest Groups

An interest group is any organization that seeks to influence public policy. Interest groups are found in many societies, but there is an unusually large number of them in the United States. This proliferation is a result of

1. The great number of social cleavages along income, occupational, religious, racial, and cultural lines.

2. The American constitutional system, which stimulates political activity, including interest group activity. Because of federalism and the separation of powers, there exist many different centers in which important decisions are made. Therefore many different interest groups can exercise some power. In Britain, on the other hand, groups are fewer in number and larger in scale (to match the centralized governmental structure).

3. The decline of political parties, which has made the wielding of power by interest groups more practical (because the system is more fragmented) and seemingly more needed. In European countries with strong parties, interest groups-such as labor unions and professional societies-tend to be closely allied to parties.

There are two kinds of interest groups: institutional and membership. The former are individuals or organizations representing other groups. Typical of institutional interests are business, governments, foundations, and universities. Membership groups are supported by the activities and contributions of individual citizens.

Since 1960 the number of interest groups has increased rapidly. There have been other historical eras of interest group proliferation. These include the 1770s (pro independence roups), the 1830s and 1840s (religious and antislavery groups), the 1860s (trade unions, the Grange, and fraternal organizations), the 1880s and 1890s (business organizations), the 1900s and 1910s (a vast array of organizations), and the 1960s (environmental, consumer, and political-reform organizations). Interest groups do not, therefore, arise spontaneously or automatically out of natural social processes. At least four factors help explain the rise of interest groups.

1. Broad economic developments. For example, the rise of mass-production industry allowed the rise of mass-membership labor unions.

2. Government policy. Public programs create constituencies with an incentive to organize to maintain their benefits. Veterans' benefits create veterans' groups; the licensing of professionals by state governments gives societies of doctors and lawyers a strong reason to exist. Sometimes the government supports the formation of organizations (the American Farm Bureau Federation is an example) by providing benefits to their members. Sometimes government policies are designed to make private interest group formation easier, as was the case with the passage of laws in the 1930s to aid labor.

3. Religious and moralistic movements. These produce people, frequently young people, who are willing to form organizations, often at large personal cost. The religious revivals of the 1830s and 1840s thus fed the antislavery crusade, and the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s likewise produced an organizational explosion.

4. The more activities government undertakes, the more interest groups form as a response to those activities. Accordingly, public interest lobbies have increased since 1970, when government became active in civil rights, social welfare, and consumer rights.

Do interest groups form according to the particular historical era and social conditions? In Interest-Group Politics in America by Ronald J. Hrebenar and Ruth K. Scott (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1982, pp. 9-12), this question is considered via the examination of various theories of group formation. In an earlier work, James Q. Wilson argued that there had been three great waves of association between 1800 and 1940. The great explosion between 1900 and 1920 had been due to a communications revolution, the government's attempt to regulate business activity, the increased division of labor, and immigration, which had added to the growing diversity of the American population. In short this era, like those that preceded it, was related to important social movements and unrest, which collectively produced new interest groups in the United States.

In a related theory, dubbed the disturbance theory by David Truman and Robert Salisbury, it was argued "that interest groups arise as a result of two interrelated societal processes. One process involves the increased complexity of society, while the second is the natural tendency to seek a condition of equilibrium" (pp. 10-11). The complexity axiom asserts that specialized groups will form associations by which they can articulate their needs. The equilibrium theory argues that disadvantaged groups that have lost political ground because of societal disturbances try to renew that balance by fresh efforts at reorganizing.

Salisbury suggests another theory, the entrepreneurial theory which "sees as the key element in group formation the organizer or entrepreneur of the new group ... the desire of the organizer to establish a viable organization." In the final analysis, "it may be that the disturbance theory better fits econonic groups, while ideological or cause groups are better explained by the entrepreneurial theory."

If it is true that America has more interest groups than other nations, does it follow that more Americans belong to groups? The answer is no for unions and for business, professional, and charitable organizations. It is yes for civil or political organizations and religious associations. Americans' willingness to join civic or political organizations probably reflects a greater sense of civic duty and political efficacy here.

Interest group joiners tend to be high-status individuals: they have the income, the free time, and the wide range of interests necessary for group activity. Some believe that interest group activity therefore has an upper-class bias. However, this bias must be considered in light of political outputs (who wins and who loses in particular issues at particular times) and internal divisions within groups (farmers, for example). There are major opinion cleavages among elites. Furthermore, some organizations of better-off persons have considerable political influence (the NAACP or consumer groups, for example), whereas others (taxpayer associations or pro-gun control groups) are relatively poorly organized and ineffective. However, interest groups representing business and the professions seem more influential and better financed than groups representing the poor, consumers, and minorities.

Furthermore, we cannot assume that what an interest group does in the political arena is simply the expression of the interests of its members. Every political organization has an external political strategy and an internal recruitment strategy. These may be different or even in conflict. The active support of labor unions for civil rights legislation in spite of the opposition or skepticism of union members, and the consistently leftist positions of the National Council of Churches, which represents fairly conservative Protestants (many of the southerners), are examples. Whether an organization's political position will represent its members' interests will depend on at least four factors.

1. The homogeneity of the group. The United States Chamber of Commerce consists of many different types of businesses and thus can say little or nothing about tariff s.

2. People's motives for joining. As long as union members are satisfied with the union's performance on bread-and-butter issues, and as long as Protestant churchgoers receive spiritual or social satisfaction in local congregations, the national AFL-CIO and the National Council of Churches can do pretty much as they please. Thus members motivated by solidary or material incentives will give great discretion to the staff to pursue their own goals.

3. The size of the staff. Organizations with large staffs are more likely to take political positions in accordance with staff beliefs. Furthermore, staffs will tend to have distinct views, either liberal/left (National Council of Churches) or conservative/right (American Farm Bureau Federation).

4. The level of militance and activity of the membership. Members of some organizations, such as the John Birch Society or Greenpeace, tend to be passionately convinced of the rightness of particular policies. Leaders of these organizations will not find members indifferent or easily satisfied, and they will be forced to take strong stands-perhaps even stands they would prefer to avoid. Social movements also create dedicated interest groups, as exemplified by civil rights, feminism, and environmental groups.

Not only do groups not necessarily represent the views of their members, but also large constituencies (consumers, or women, or taxpayers) are particularly hard to organize. This is not because such people are apathetic but because of the free-rider problem. No single individual's membership perceptibly affects the likelihood that the group will succeed in achieving its goals, yet if it does achieve its goals, every person in the class represented will share in the benefits, regardless of whether he or she was actually a member. The average individual has virtually no incentive to join.

Organizations may overcome this problem by supplying services to individual members, in addition to engaging in political activity. The Illinois Farm Bureau and American Association of Retired Persons follow this strategy. Groups such as Common Cause or Ralph Nader's Public Citizen may raise large amounts of money through direct mail. (Organizations that make their appeals to broad, controversial principles are termed ideological interest groups.)

Interest groups attempt to influence policy by supplying public officials with things they want. These things include:

1 . Credible information. This may include policy information to allow a legislator to take a position on an issue or technical information needed to implement a policy. When the Federal Energy Adn-dnistration was trying to allocate scarce oil and gasoline supplies, it discovered that the information it needed was possessed only by the oil companies. An interest group is most powerful when the issue is narrow and technical and there are no competing interest groups to supply competing information. Finally, it may involve political cues that will allow a public official to line up on the liberal or conservative side of an issue.

2. Public support. It is unlikely, therefore, that these tactics are effective for more than a handful of visible issues with great emotional significance (abortion, the Panama Canal treaties). Although there has been a recent rise in single issue politics, which often generates grass-roots lobbying, members of Congress generally hear what they want to hear and deal with interest groups that agree with them. However, interest groups have successfully mobilized support for and against legislators, as was the case with the "Dirty Dozen."

3. Money. Interest groups can establish political action committees to finance political campaigns, they can lobby Congress to reduce or increase the appropriations for government agencies, they can provide jobs for former government officials (revolving door), and on occasion they may offer a cash bribe. To obtain money beyond mere dues, interest groups have turned to foundation grants (Ford Foundation, Scaife Foundation), federal grants and contracts, and direct-mail solicitation.

4. The absence of trouble. Tactics such as protest marches, sit-ins, picketing, and violence have always been part of American politics, used by both the left and the right. The object is to disrupt the workings of some institution to force it to negotiate with you, to enlist the support of third parties (for example, the media), or to provoke attacks and arrests so that martyrs are created.

Many policies have been enacted or proposed to regulate interest groups; all must deal with the fact that interest group activity is a form of political speech protected by the First Amendment. For example, the Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act of 1946 requires interest groups to register with the secretary of the Senate and clerk of the House of Representatives, as well as to file quarterly financial reports. The Supreme Court upheld the law but limited its impact to groups whose "principal purpose" is to influence legislation. Both the 1946 law and the subsequent Supreme court ruling, therefore, left significant loopholes for interest groups to exploit. It was not until 1995 that Congress responded to popular concerns with the passage of tighter regulatory legislation. The new law broadened the definition of a lobbyist, thereby requiring more advocates to register with the House and the Senate, and also obliged lobbyists to disclose more information about their clients. Lobbyists must now register if they spend at lease 20 percent of their time lobbying and/or are paid $5,000 or more for lobbying in any six-month period. Corporations and groups must register if they spend more that $20,000 in any six-month period on their lobbying staff. Having registered, lobbyists must submit biannual reports that list the names of their clients, their income and expenditures, and the issues on which they worked. Although the law did not establish a new enforcement agency, violations may be referred to the Justice Department for investigation. Fines for breaking the law could amount to $50,000. In addition, a controversial proviso barred those tax-exempt nonprofit groups currently receiving federal funds from lobbying.

Ultimately the most effective restraints on interest group activity may result from the tax code (which threatens to revoke a group's tax-exempt status if it engages in substantial amounts of lobbying) and campaign finance laws. Yet interest groups have discovered ways to evade even these restraints. Consider the restriction on campaign contributions. According to Hedrick Smith, these spending limits can be circumvented by bundling. "Bundling is the practice by which a central PAC in some industry will appeal to individual executives in its field for contributions to individual senators or congressmen. The PAC acts as the collection point for private checks, but since these funds are not its own, these contributions do not count against its $5,000 legal limit. The PAC puts these checks together in a 'bundle', delivers them to the politician, and reaps the political credit for raising the money." Bundling has become one of the most common PAC practices and has been used with considerable success. An outstanding practitioner is EMILY's List, a PAC that supports pro-choice, Democratic women candidates. (The PAC name is an acronym: "Early Money Is Like Yeast"-to complete the phrase, "it makes the dough rise.") In the 1992 cycle, EMILY's List spokespersons claimed to have contributed or bundled $6.2 million. Thus, even the best regulations are ineffective barriers against the power of interest groups.


Discussion Questions

1.Why have interest groups grown stronger as the parties have grown weaker? Could this inverse relationship be changed, with both interest groups and parties growing more powerful? Or are there incentives for these organizations to compete? Could interest groups and political parties both grow progressively weaker?

2. Which have been more important in the formation of interest groups: changes in the economic structure of society or changes in people's ideas and beliefs? What evidence does the text give on this point? Can you think of other examples?

3. The text contends that governmental policy encourages the growth and activity of interest groups; programs create constituencies. What about the reverse-do interest groups create governmental programs? Could interest group activity be responsible for the expansion of government itself? In The End of Liberalism, Theodore Lowi presented the theory that public policy is formulated by government bureaucrats in conjunction with interest groups. Has the complexity of contemporary society shifted the advantage to interest groups?

4. If one assumes that American society will become more complex in the future, can one rightfully assume that new waves of interest group formation are also likely to concur?

5. What specific social trends and changes in contemporary America have the distinct ability to trigger interest group formation?

6. Which incentive-material, purposive, solidary-is routinely most important in students' decisions to join an interest group? Why? Does this lead students to pay greater attention to the group's external political strategy or its internal recruitment strategy?

7. Explore the reasons why an interest group's external political strategy and internal recruitment strategy may appear contradictory. Can an interest group confronting these circumstances be successful? Why? What leadership skills are required to direct an interest group experiencing these tensions?

8. Do students belong to any groups for purely purposive reasons? Are they free riders in relation to any interest groups? Weigh the costs and benefits associated with group membership. What ethical obligations should each citizen confront as a potential participant in public interest groups?

9. Information is the primary tactic employed by interest groups. A substantial proportion of the legislation introduced into Congress is written either entirely or in part by interest groups. Why would members of Congress introduce such legislation? Is the public vulnerable to exploitation by powerful groups due to their monopoly over information?

10. Compare and contrast the 1946 and 1995 legislation for the regulation of lobbyists. Why isn't such legislation an unacceptable limitation of free speech? Why is it so difficult for Congress to develop clear standards for legislative lobbying? (Students should be encouraged to consider how voters, interest group members, lobbyists, and legislators might hold different views of lobbying.)

11. PACs have been called collection agencies for interest groups. They were created to evade laws that forbid corporations and labor unions from giving money "directly" to federal candidates. Why does Congress permit the law to be trampled by allowing the existence of PACs? Do PACs threaten the constitutional order?

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