Overview Unit 14
Interest Groups: Organizing To Influence
After completing this session, you will be able to:
- Define the term interest group and distinguish these groups
from other political organizations.
- Describe the different types of interest groups.
- Describe the resources and principal tactics used by interest
groups to influence public policy.
- Analyze the role that interest groups play in the policy-making
This penultimate unit delves into the role of interest groups in American
political life. America has, as Tocqueville noted, long been a nation
of joiners. We have a long history of joining together for common
purposes, and thus it no surprise that organized groups prevail throughout
the political system. As the unit shows, however, interest groups
are not easily categorized. There is a wide variety of interests represented
in the political system and they use an equally wide array of tactics
and strategies. Part of this unit demonstrates the vibrancy of strategies
and tactics employed by groups attempting to influence public policy.
The framers of the U.S. Constitution understood that organized interests
would always attempt to exert influence on policy. They developed
a constitutional system of republican government that takes organized
interests as a given, and thus allows interests to weigh in on policy-making
in various ways. In making the case for the Constitution's ratification,
James Madison placed the problem of organized interests at the center
of his theory of republican democracy. In "Federalist No.
10," he warns of the "mischief of factions"
(i.e., organized interests) that could threaten individual or other
groups' liberties. The remedy for the problem of factions lies not
in trying to eliminate them, but in controlling their effects. One
solution is to encourage the proliferation of various groups of different
shapes, sizes, and motives so that no one group dominates the others
in ways that undercut basic rights and liberties.
Interest groups are any organization of people with policy
goals who work within the political process to promote such goals.
Groups attempt to influence policy in various ways including:
- Lobbying government. Organized interests hire representatives
to advocate on behalf of the group's interests. Lobbying activities
include contacting members of Congress and the executive branch
to disseminate information about the positive or adverse effects
of proposed legislation.
- Engaging in election activities. Interests may attempt
to influence elections in order to help get people who support
their issues elected or reelected. Electioneering techniques include
giving money to candidates, endorsing candidates or issues, and
conducting grassroots activities such as get-out-the-vote drives.
- Educating various publics. Interest groups work hard
to educate the public at large, government officials, their own
members, and potential interest group members.
- Mobilizing various publics. To influence policy-making,
many groups rely on the efforts of people who are motivated to
act on behalf of their issues and causes. So-called grassroots
activities might include writing letters, making phone calls,
contacting policy-makers, and demonstrating.
Many interest groups in society are those focused on advancing their
members' economic interests. Some have a large membership base,
while others represent only a few members.
Trade associations, for example, represent one segment of
the economy (e.g., defense contractors, trial lawyers) but often
take a stand on a variety of policy matters. Because their members
have a direct economic incentive to support the group's actions,
economic interest groups tend to be well funded and very professional.
Economic interest groups often combine the services of professional
lobbyists with other efforts to help their members. They may help
write letters, place phone calls, meet with decision makers, and,
in the case of large membership organizations such as unions, engage
in demonstrations directed at decision makers.
Citizen action groups, also known as public interest groups,
are another type of enduring interest group. Some are generally
concerned with a broad range of issues that affect the public at
large, such as social or environmental issues. Examples include
Common Cause or the National Association for the Advancement of
Colored People (NAACP). Others, including the National Rifle Association
(NRA) or the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) may
be committed to one or a small cluster of issues. Those groups that
focus on one issue are also known as single-issue groups.
Most citizen action groups are relatively well funded, and many
employ the same tactics (e.g., hiring lobbyists, electioneering,
litigation, etc.) used by economic interest groups. But because
they have large memberships, mobilizing their members to promote
the group's causes is also an important tactic.
Non-membership groups are a fast-growing segment of the organized
interest universe. These groups include corporations that maintain
offices in Washington and many state capitals. Other non-membership
groups include universities and state and local governments. Non-membership
groups may hire their own lobbyists or employ outside consultants
to track and influence legislation.
Even without large-scale permanent organizations, citizens often
organize themselves into ad hoc associations aimed at influencing
public policy decisions. These organizations are often directed
at a single cause such as neighborhood beautification or school
reform. Because of their narrower focus, they tend not to outlive
the issue that originally spurred their creation. Lacking financial
resources and organizations, these grassroots associations depend
on membership mobilization through letters, phone calls, personal
contacts, and demonstrations to pursue their causes. Because they
lack permanency and economic motivation, size and members' unity
may constitute the greatest strength of ad hoc associations.
Many interest groups employ the services of former government officials
(e.g., former Congress members, cabinet officials, and military
officers) as lobbyists because these former officials are able to
use their personal contacts and intimate knowledge of policy-making
processes on behalf of the interests they represent. The interaction
of mutual interests among Congress members, executive agencies,
and organized interests during political struggles over policy-making
is sometimes referred to as an iron triangle. While members
of an iron triangle are expected to fight on behalf of their interests,
constituents, or governmental department, they often seek policy
outcomes that produce benefits for all members of the "triangle."