Dr. Eileen Lynch
17. Interest Groups
Define the term interest groups. Identify the main strategies used by these groups and give examples. Which branches of the government are subjected to these activities? How legitimate are these activities in a democratic society, compared to other forms of participation such as voting?
“Interest groups” are succinctly defined in the text book as “private groups that attempt to influence the government to respond to the shared attitudes of their members”.
Interest groups have several main strategies with which they seek to influence the people in charge of policy-making decisions. The people they target are not only members of the legislative branch, but they also target officials of the executive branch, regulatory agencies and even the courts. The most time-honored tradition of interest groups is to “lobby” the person they wish to influence. As a matter of fact, since the beginning of the nation this practice has been well known and used by interest groups. Usually, one envisions a lobbyist as someone who buttonhooks and corners people into listening to them by lurking in the lobby area of the building where the person is located at the moment. And although that happens too, a lobbyist often is a person who actually gets to know the officials in question. They visit officials, attend hearings at congressional committees, government agencies and regulatory commissions, and form friendships with the staff members and bureaucrats. The main tool used by lobbyists is money. They might slip a few thousands to their intended target, but because of certain limitations on how much officials can be bribed, the lobbyists also hand out party-favors and contributions according to the rules of engagement. One example of how lobbyists work is the passage of Medicare prescription drug benefits for elderly persons, in which the pharmaceutical industry poured millions of dollars in contributions and well-placed favors to key people and managed to pass the law in precisely the manner in which they would be most benefited by it.
Also, interest groups use mass propaganda as a tool for exerting pressure and molding public opinion to achieve their ends. Through the use of television, magazines, newspapers, Internet advertising and even direct e-mailing and snail-mailing, interest groups try to create the right environment and climate for the change they wish to implement. An example is the case of AAA and their opposition to the bill that would have allowed larger trucks on national roads. Using vast amounts of money they bought a mass publicity campaign that managed to alarm the general public enough to defeat the bill when it came up for implementation.
Another form of interest groups’ influence can be seen in the organization of grass-roots movements that try to urge people in a more one-on-one basis to get in touch with their representatives in Congress and other government offices and urge them to action or to refrain from action. The best example could be apocryphal, but it seems that the NRA can flood Congress with five hundred thousand letters at the drop of the hat, if necessary, to continue opposing the passage of gun-control laws.
And when dealing with single issues, interest groups can also act through PACs, the so-called political action committees that are often arms of corporations, labor unions and even independent interest groups.
To be sure, interest groups are necessary to the democratic process insofar as the need that representatives of the government need well-researched material in which to base their opinions. However, since the general public cannot afford millions of dollars in informing their representatives of their needs, it often seems a lopsided and unfair practice to have interest groups with seemingly bottomless pockets garnering favors left and right among the officials that are meant to look after the welfare of the general public.
Democracy Under Pressure: An Introduction to the American System, 10th Edition, Milton C. Cummings, Jr., David Wise, Thomson