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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 attempt to influence policy by
supplying public officials with things they want. These things
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
5. What specific social trends and changes in
contemporary America have the distinct ability to trigger interest
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
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
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