Chapter 9: Interest Groups
The Interest Group Universe
Lobbying involves persuasion—using reports, protests, informal meetings, or other
techniques tconvince an elected official or bureaucrat thelp enact a law, craft
a regulation, or dsomething else that a group wants. Interest groups are organizations
of people whshare common political interests and aim tinfluence public policy
by electioneering and lobbying. Interest groups and political parties share the
goal of changing what government does, but there are three critical differences:
- Political parties run candidates for office and coordinate activities of elected
officials. While interest groups alselectioneer, they dnot run candidates.
Major political parties hold certain legal advantages over interest groups when
it comes tinfluencing policy, such as guaranteed positions on electoral ballots.
The elected members of political parties have a direct influence over government
activity because they propose, debate, and vote on policies. Interest groups have
an indirect influence: they must either persuade elected officials tsupport their
point of view or help elect candidates whalready share their goals.
Pluralism refers tthe idea that Americans exercise political power through participation
in interest groups rather than as individuals. Thus, interest groups are America’s
fundamental political actors. America has alsbeen described as an interest group
state, a government in which most policy decisions are determined by the influence
of interest groups.
- The Business of Lobbying
Lobbying is heavily regulated. Annual reports must be filed by lobbying firms and
interest groups tdetail expenditures for lobbying activities. The number of registered
lobbyists doubled between 2000 and 2005. The number of interest groups has also
increased in recent years, in correlation with the large size and widespread influence
of the federal government. While some organizations lobby independently, other join
a trade association, an interest group composed of companies in the same business
or industry (the same “trade”) that lobbies for policies that will benefit members
of the group.
- Types of Interest Groups
Interest groups can be divided intthree categories based on the types of concerns
that drive their lobbying efforts: economic groups, citizen groups, and single-issue
- Economic groups seek public policies that will provide monetary benefits ttheir
members. Labor organizations fall under this category.
- Citizen groups seek
change in spending, regulations, or government programs concerning a wide range
of policies (alsknown as public interest groups). Issues of interest may vary
from legislation that defines marriage between a man and a woman tthe elimination
of estate taxes.
- Single-issue groups form around a narrowly focused goal,
seeking change on a single topic, government program, or piece of legislation. For
example, the National Right tLife campaign lobbies for regulations on abortion
Historically, economic interest groups outnumbered citizen groups and single-issue
groups. While the number of all types of interest groups has increased in recent
years, the increase in citizen groups has far outpaced the growth in economic groups.
This may be attributed tthe increased role of the government in citizens’ everyday
- Organizational Structures
There are two main models of interest group structure: centralized groups and confederations.
- Centralized groups are interest groups with a headquarters, usually in Washington,
DC, as well as members and field offices throughout the country. In general, these
groups’ lobbying decisions are made at headquarters by the group leaders. Most well-known
organizations like the AARP and the NRA are centralized groups.
- Confederations are interest groups made up of several independent, local organizations that provide
much of their funding and hold most of the power.
Both structures have advantages and disadvantages. A centralized organization controls
all of the group’s resources and can deploy them efficiently, but it can be challenging
tfind out what members want. A confederation has the advantage of maintaining
independent chapters at state and local levels, sit is easier for the national
headquarters tlearn what members want. Conflict, however, is more rampant in confederations
because when chapters send funds theadquarters, they can specify how the funds
must be used.
Interest group staff falls inttwcategories: experts on the group’s focal policy
areas, and people with useful government connections and knowledge of procedures.
The practice of transitioning from government positions tworking for interest
groups or lobbying firms is known as the revolving door. Over 40 percent of representatives
leaving the House or Senate join a lobbying firm after their departure. The term
K Street refers collectively tWashington lobbyists.
Interest groups can be distinguished on the basis of the size of their membership
and the members’ role in the group’s activities.
- A mass association is an interest group that has a large number of dues-paying
individuals as members. Not all mass associations give members a say in selecting
a group’s leaders or determining its mission.
- A peak association is an interest
group whose members are businesses or other organizations rather than individuals.
Some interest groups have nmembers at all. Sometimes it makes more sense for
interest groups tseek funding from foundations, corporations, or a few wealthy
individuals rather than from broad-based membership.
Interest groups use resources including people, money, and expertise tsupport
their lobbying efforts.
- People are among the most important resources an interest group can utilize. Group
members write letters telected officials, send e-mails, travel tWashington for
demonstrations, and son. They may alsoffer expertise or advice. Interest groups’
ability tuse people as a resource is limited by twmajor challenges: it is expensive
trecruit members, and difficult tmotivate members’ participation.
is important because virtually everything interest groups dcan be purchased as
services. Well-funded groups can purchase resources they lack.
- Expertise can
take many forms. Areas of expertise may include knowing members’ preferences, or
having information on policy questions and legislative proposals. This information
is an asset group leaders can use tnegotiate with elected officials or bureaucrats.
Not all interest groups utilize expertise. Some groups focus on mobilizing people
outside government, expecting that elected officials will respond by developing
Forming and Maintaining interest Groups
An interest group’s first task is traise money tget organized. Then, they must
continue tattract funds for ongoing operations.
- The Logic of Collective Action
Changes in policy are public goods; everyone whis eligible benefits. Regardless
of how many other people join, an individual is better off free riding—refusing
tjoin an organization, and still enjoying the benefits of any success the group
might have. But, if everyone acts on this calculation, none will join the group
and the organization will be unable tlobby for grants or anything else.
- The logic of collective action can be explained by the prisoner’s dilemma. In
this situation, all participants will be better off if they cooperate or coordinate
their behavior, but each individual participant alshas an incentive tdefect
or refuse tcooperate, in hopes of enjoying the benefits of the other participants’
efforts without contributing themselves.
- Collective action problems involving
interest groups are usually more difficult tresolve than the prisoner’s dilemma
since there are typically more participants, and there is nway for each participant
tknow whether others are free riding.
- Solving Collective Action Problems
Some interest groups have developed mechanisms tengender cooperation:
- Some organizations offer immaterial benefits for participation:
- Solidary benefits include the satisfaction derived from the experience of working
with like-minded people, even if the group’s efforts dnot achieve the desired
- Purposive benefits include the satisfaction derived from the experience of working
toward a desired policy goal, even if the goal is not achieved.
- Coercion is a method of eliminating nonparticipation or free riding by requiring participation.
For example, workers in certain industries are required tjoin their respective
- Selective incentives are benefits that can motivate participation in a group effort
because they are available only tthose whparticipate, such as member services
offered by interest groups.
- Interest group entrepreneurs play a critical role
in successful collective action. They are leaders of an interest group whdefine
the group’s mission and its goals and create a plan tachieve them.
- Implications of the Logic of Collective Action
Unless people see benefits from participating in an organization, group leaders
must worry about finding the right mix of coercion and selective incentives tget
people tjoin. Economic groups are generally easier tform than citizen groups.
Since economic groups generally involve a small number of corporations or individuals,
the costs of free riding are relatively high; one actor’s efforts significantly
boost the probability of success. Thus, economic groups can often form on the strength
of their shared policy or monetary goals, without coercion, selective incentives,
or solidary benefits. Citizen groups, on the other hand, with many more potential
members, typically need tincentivize people tjoin.
- Interest Group Strategies
Having formed an interest group, lobbying goals must be identified. In most interest
groups, the leaders make such decisions; they can lobby on issues that their members
are not interested in or take positions that a majority of their members oppose.
Members often have little input, with the only recourse of quitting the organization
if they disagree with the group’s goals.
Once a group has determined its goals, the next step is tdetermine how tlobby.
There are a number of possible tactics that fall under twcategories: inside strategies
and outside strategies.
- Inside Strategies
Inside strategies are tactics used by interest groups within Washington, DC, to
achieve their policy goals.
- Direct lobbying, attempts by interest group staff tinfluence policy by speaking
with elected officials or bureaucrats, is very common. Interest groups try thelp
like-minded legislators secure policy changes that they both want. Little time is
spent trying tconvert opposing legislators and bureaucrats.
- Interest groups
sometimes draft legislative proposals and regulations, which they then deliver to
legislators and bureaucrats as part of their lobbying efforts.
- Interest groups often prepare research reports on topics of interest tthe group.
Members of Congress are more likely taccept a group’s legislative proposal if
they believe the group’s staff have some research tback up their claims.
Interest group staff often testify before congressional committees in order tinform
members of Congress about issues that matter tthe group.
- Groups can sue
the government on grounds that the government’s actions are not constitutional,
or that the government has misinterpreted the provisions of the existing law.
- Interest groups can alswork together in their lobbying efforts. Generally, such
collaboration is short-term and aimed at achieving a specific outcome.
- Outside Strategies
- Grassroots lobbying is a strategy that relies on participation by group members,
such as in a protest or a letter-writing campaign. This strategy is effective because
elected officials hate tact against a large group of citizens whcare enough
about an issue texpress their position.
- The effectiveness of grassroots lobbying depends on perceptions of elected officials
regarding how much a group has done tmotivate participation. For example, astroturf
lobbying is designed tlook like the spontaneous, independent participation of
many individuals. Astroturf lobbying is often ignored because it says more about
a group’s ability tmake participation accessible rather than the number of people
whstrongly support an issue.
- Mobilizing public opinion is an attempt to
change what the public thinks about an issue.
- Electioneering involves supporting candidates for election. Federal laws limit
groups’ electioneering efforts:
- Most interest groups are organized as a 501(c) organization, a tax code classification
that makes donations tthe group tax-deductible but limits the group’s political
activities (the formal limit is 20 percent of the group’s activities or budget).
Interest groups can get around these limits by forming a separate political action
committee (PAC) or 527 organization, which is a tax-exempt group formed primarily
tinfluence elections through voter mobilization efforts and issue ads that do
not directly endorse or oppose a candidate. They are not subject tspending caps
or contribution limits.
- Some interest groups use the strategy of taking the late train by donating money
tthe winning candidate after the election in hopes of securing a meeting with
that person when he takes office.
- Media coverage publicizes a group’s concerns
without spending any money.
- Interest groups may alspropose policy by bypassing the government entirely:
- An initiative is a direct vote by citizens on a policy change proposed by fellow
citizens or organized groups outside government. Getting a question on the ballot
typically requires collecting a set number of signatures from registered voters
in support of the proposal. The initiative process favors well-funded groups that
can advertise their proposal.
- A referendum is a direct vote by citizens on
a policy change proposed by a legislature or another government body. While referenda
are common in state and local elections, there is nmechanism for a national-level
- Choosing Tactics
Most groups give testimony, dresearch, contact elected officials, talk with journalists,
and develop legislative and regulatory proposals. Only a bare majority of interest
groups engage in grassroots lobbying. Relatively few groups organize protests, endorse
candidates, or provide campaign workers.
How Much Power DInterest Groups Have?
Despite criticism that interest groups have tomuch influence over political outcomes.
Scholarly evidence does not support this claim:
- Interest groups lobby their friends in government rather than their enemies, and
tend tmoderate their demands in the face of resistance.
- Some complaints
about the power of interest groups come from losers in the political process.
Many interest groups claim responsibility for policies and election outcomes regardless
of whether their lobbying made the difference.
- The sizable amounts that groups
spend tlobby Congress can easily overshadow the more important issue of what they
got for their money.
What Determines When Groups Succeed?
Two related factors determine the success of lobbying efforts: salience and conflict.
- Interest groups are more likely tsucceed when their request has low salience,
or attracts little public attention. Legislators and bureaucrats dnot have to
worry about the political consequences of giving a group what it wants if the issue
is not well known.
- Conflict works against lobbying efforts. There are twkinds of conflict over
- Disagreements between interest groups
- Differences between what a particular
interest group wants and public opinion