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14. Interest Groups: Organizing to Influence, Topic Overview
Topic Overview Using the Video Readings Critical Thinking Activity Web-Based Resources




Topic Overview Unit 14

Interest Groups: Organizing To Influence

Learning Objectives

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 process.

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."


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