Interest Groups: Organizing for Influence

Interest Groups: Organizing for Influence

Chapter 9

Interest Groups: Organizing for Influence

Learning Objectives

Having read the chapter, the students should be able to do each of the following:

  1. Explain what an interest group is and how these groups differ from a political party.
  2. Discuss the different types of interest groups and their constituencies, and compare and contrast the organizational advantages and disadvantages of economic and citizens’ groups.
  3. Define lobbying and explain its objective; list the tactics employed by interest groups in the lobbying process.
  4. Compare and contrast the processes of inside and outside lobbying, their targets in the power structure, and the circumstances in which either are most effective.
  5. Discuss the difference between iron triangles and issue networks and the prevalence of each today.
  6. Discuss the activities of political action committees and their influence on the election process.
  7. Explain pluralist theory and interest-group liberalism. Discuss the major weaknesses of the pluralist argument.
  8. Discuss the conflict between the advocacy of self-interest as the basic prerequisite for a free society and the government’s responsibility to protect and preserve the public interest (the Madisonian dilemma). Also, explain how James Madison’s constitutional system of checks and balances resulted in an increase of special interest influence.

Chapter Outline

I.The Interest-Group System

A.Economic Groups

B.Citizens’ Groups

C.The Organizational Edge: Economic Groups vs. Citizens’ Groups

1.Unequal Access to Resources

2.The Advantages and Disadvantages of Size

II.Inside Lobbying: Seeking Influence through Official Contacts

A.Acquiring Access to Officials

1.Lobbying Congress

2.Lobbying the Executive

3.Lobbying the Courts

B.Webs of Influence: Groups in the Policy Process

1.Iron Triangles

2.Issue Networks

III.Outside Lobbying: Seeking Influence through Public Pressure

A.Constituency Advocacy: Grassroots Lobbying

B.Electoral Action: Votes and Money

1.Political Action Committees (PACs)

2.Super PACs

IV.The Group System: Indispensable but Biased

A.The Contribution of Groups to Self-Government: Pluralism

B.Flaws in Pluralism: Interest-Group Liberalism and Economic Bias

C.A Madisonian Dilemma

Focus and Main Points

This chapter examines the degree to which various interests in American society are represented by organized groups, the process by which interest groups exert influence, and the costs and benefits of group politics. The main points made in the chapter are these:

  • Although nearly all interests in American society are organized to some degree, those associated with economic activity, particularly business activity, are by far the most thoroughly organized. Their advantage rests on their superior financial resources and on the private goods (such as wages and jobs) they provide to those in the organization.
  • Groups that do not have economic activity as their primary function often have organizational difficulties. These groups pursue public or collective goods (such as a safer environment) that are available even to individuals who are not group members, so individuals may free ride, choosing not to pay the costs of membership.
  • Lobbying and electioneering are the traditional means by which groups communicate with and influence political leaders. Recent developments, including grassroots lobbying and political action committees, have heightened interest groups’ influence.
  • The interest-group system overrepresents business interests and fosters policies that serve a group’s interest more than the society’s broader interests. Thus, although groups are an essential part of the policy process, they also distort that process.

Chapter Summary

A political interest group is composed of a set of individuals organized to promote a shared concern. Most interest groups owe their existence to factors other than politics. These groups form for economic reasons, such as the pursuit of profit, and maintain themselves by making profits (in the case of corporations) or by providing their members with private goods, such as jobs and wages. Economic groups include corporations, trade associations, labor unions, farm organizations, and professional associations. Collectively, economic groups are by far the largest set of organized interests. The group system tends to favor interests that are already economically and socially advantaged.

Citizens’ groups do not have the same organizational advantages as economic groups. They depend on voluntary contributions from potential members, who may lack interest and resources or who recognize that they will get the collective good from a group’s activity even if they do not participate (the free-rider problem). Citizens’ groups include public-interest, single-issue, and ideological groups. Their numbers have increased dramatically since the 1960s despite their organizational problems.

Organized interests seek influence largely by lobbying public officials and contributing to election campaigns. Using an inside strategy, lobbyists develop direct contacts with legislators, government bureaucrats, and members of the judiciary in order to persuade them to accept the group’s perspective on policy. Groups also use an outside strategy, seeking to mobilize public support for their goals. This strategy relies in part on grassroots lobbying—encouraging group members and the public to communicate their policy views to officials. Outside lobbying also includes efforts to elect officeholders who will support group aims. Through political action committees (PACs), organized groups now provide nearly a third of all contributions received by congressional candidates. A more recent development is the emergence of Super PACs. They are independent campaign committees that can raise and spend nearly unrestricted amounts of money on elections as long as they do not coordinate their efforts with those of the candidate they are supporting.

The policies that emerge from the group system bring benefits to many of society’s interests and often serve the collective interest as well. But when groups can essentially dictate policies, the common good is rarely served. The majority’s interest is subordinated to group (minority) interests. In most instances, the minority consists of individuals who already enjoy a substantial share of society’s benefits.

Major Concepts

single-issue politics

The situation in which separate groups are organized around nearly every conceivable policy issue and press their demands and influence to the utmost.

interest group

Any organization that actively seeks to influence public policy.

economic groups

Interest groups that are organized primarily for economic reasons but that engage in political activity in order to seek favorable policies from government.

citizens’ (noneconomic) groups

Organized interests formed by individuals drawn together by opportunities to promote a cause in which they believe but that does not provide them significant individual economic benefits.

private (individual) goods

Benefits that a group (most often an economic group) can grant directly and exclusively to individual members of the group.

collective (public) goods

Benefits that are offered by groups (usually citizens’ groups) as an incentive for membership but that are nondivisible (such as a clean environment) and therefore are available to nonmembers as well as members of the particular group.

free-rider problem

The situation in which the benefits offered by a group to its members are also available to nonmembers. The incentive to join the group and to promote its cause is reduced because nonmembers (free riders) receive the benefits (e.g., a cleaner environment) without having to pay any of the group’s costs.


The process by which interest-group members or lobbyists attempt to influence public policy through contacts with public officials.

inside lobbying

Direct communication between organized interests and policymakers, which is based on the assumed value of close (“inside”) contacts with policymakers.

iron triangle

A small and informal but relatively stable group of well-positioned legislators, executives, and lobbyists who seek to promote policies beneficial to a particular interest.

issue network

An informal and relatively open network of public officials and lobbyists who have a common interest in a given area and who are brought together by a proposed policy in that area. Unlike an iron triangle, an issue network disbands after the issue is resolved.

outside lobbying

A form of lobbying in which an interest group seeks to use public pressure as a means of influencing officials.

grassroots lobbying

A form of lobbying designed to persuade officials that a group’s policy position has strong constituent support.

political action committee (PAC)

The organization through which an interest group raises and distributes funds for election purposes. By law, the funds must be raised through voluntary contributions.

super PACs

Independent-expenditure-only-committees that may raise and spend unlimited funds for election purposes. These committees are not allowed to give money directly to candidates or parties, but they are otherwise more or less free to spend as much as they want.

interest-group liberalism

The tendency of public officials to support the policy demands of self-interested groups (as opposed to judging policy demands according to whether they serve a larger conception of “the public interest”).

Lecture Outline

This lecture outline closely follows the text in its organization. The instructor can use this outline as a lecture aid.

In this chapter the author focuses on interest groups and the degree to which various interests in American society are represented through organized groups. The greater power of economic groups as compared to citizens’ groups is discussed, as is pluralist denial that there is such an imbalance of power. The chapter begins with a delineation of various types of interest groups, and an explanation of differences in the degree to which various interests are organized is offered.

The lobbying process by which interest groups seek to achieve their policy goals is highlighted, evaluating its impact on national policy. The author examines the differences between inside and outside lobbying, and the various forms of activity each entails. The chapter ends with a discussion of how the group system is indispensable yet flawed.

A political interest group is any organization that actively seeks to influence public policy.

  • Political parties are distinguished from interest groups by the breadth of their focus. Parties build coalitions by addressing a wide range of issues, while interest groups focus on a narrow set of issues of immediate concern to their membership.
  • Pluralism holds that society’s interests are represented mainly by groups. These interests benefit from organized group activity.
  • The rise of single-issue politics combined with the decline of political parties has served to increase the power of interest groups. Whereas party politics emphasizes the building of coalitions and the balancing of the needs of specific interests with the broader needs of society, group politics may result in the ascendancy of narrow interests that prove harmful to the larger society.

I.The Interest-Group System

Americans are extremely actively involved in groups and community causes. This tendency, as well as the nation’s separation of powers and federalism, contribute to the prevalence of interest groups. The extraordinary number of interest groups in the U.S., however, does not indicate that all interests are equally well represented.

Many interest groups function chiefly to produce economic goods and services. These economic interest groups also engage in political activity, seeking favorable government policies.

The types of economic groups include the following:

  • Business groups are numerous and have a size advantage over many other groups. They concentrate their efforts on issues directly affecting business interests.
  • Labor groups promote policies that benefit workers in general and union members in particular. The largest today represent service and public employees rather than skilled and unskilled laborers.
  • Farm groups consist of general and specialty farm associations.
  • Most professions have lobbying associations; an example of a powerful professional group is the American Medical Association.

Citizens’ (noneconomic) interest groups emphasize purposive incentives—opportunities to promote a cause in which the members believe. They offer collective or public goods as incentives and thus have a free-rider problem. Recently, these groups have learned to use the Internet and computer-aided direct mails to improve fundraising. Citizens’ interest groups are particularly difficult to classify, but include these elements:

  • Some citizens’ groups work to advance the interests of a particular social grouping; an example is the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
  • Single-interest groups are organized to influence policy in just one area.This category represents most interest groups.
  • Ideological groups are concerned with a broad range of policies from a general philosophical or value perspective.

The success of any interest group is directly related to its ability to organize effectively. Citizens’ groups are outnumbered by economic groups and have less influence.

  • Economic groups have naturally stronger financial resources because they offer members a powerful incentive for membership in the form of private (individual) goods, which
    accrue benefits to members exclusively; noneconomic groups offer public (collective) goods to their members and thus suffer from the free-rider problem.
  • Economic groups have the advantage of ready access to resources, such as money from profits or dues that facilitate organization.
  • Business associations and economic groups can benefit from small size, which can confer the ability to organize and react quickly.
  • There can be strength in numbers, such as in the citizens’ group AARP, which can leverage a huge membership for voting power and advocacy.

II.Inside Lobbying: Seeking Influence through Official Contacts

Inside lobbying refers to efforts of groups to develop and maintain close (inside) contacts with policymakers.

  • Inside lobbying focuses on gaining access to public officials, providing them with vital information, and expressing group concerns in order to promote the group’s perspective.
  • Money is an essential ingredient of inside lobbying due to the high level of funding required to mount an effective lobbying effort in Washington.
  • Lobbyists target multiple points of access in the decision-making process: Congress, executive agencies, and the courts. All efforts center on supplying reliable information in an attempt to persuade; it is a mistake to view lobbying as a practice that employs old-fashioned coercive techniques. Lobbying of the executive branch has increased as the power and reach of that branch has increased.

Iron triangles and issue networks describe two patterns of group influence through which most public policy is decided.

  • An iron triangle is a small, informal, but stable set of bureaucrats, legislators, and lobbyists who are preoccupied with policies beneficial to their common goal.
  • An issue network is based on a common expertise, instead of a common goal, and is an informal relationship between officials and lobbyists brought together temporarily by a shared concern about a current policy issue.

Interest groups function in both iron triangles and issue networks. Unlike iron triangles, which are now less prevalent, issue networks involve interest groups of opposing viewpoints.

III.Outside Lobbying: Seeking Influence through Public Pressure

Outside lobbying is designed to promote group goals through public pressure.

  • Grassroots lobbying, or pressure designed to convince government officials that a group’s policy position has strong public support, is a major form of constituency advocacy.

Electoral action is another form of outside lobbying.

  • As part of an outside strategy, organized groups work to elect their supporters and keep their opponents out of office.
  • The Supreme Court ruling in Citizens Unitedfound that federal laws restricting campaign spending by corporations and unions violated their right of free expression.
  • This and other subsequent lower court rulings have spawned Super PACs or, as they are officially called, independent-expenditure-only-committees (IEOCs).
  • Super PACs can accept contributions of any size and can focus their spending entirely on the election or defeat of a single candidate. Unlike regular PACs, they are also not required by law to disclose in a timely way the sources of their funds.
  • Regular PACs have been criticized as giving groups too much influence over lawmakers; however, Super PACs do not have the small-contribution restrictions that regular PACs have and thus have been the subject of hot debate.
  • PAC supporters claim that a campaign finance system based on pooled contributions is superior to one dominated by a few wealthy contributors. Critics claim that PACs give interest groups excessive influence over elected officials.
  • Contribution records show that PAC funding practices tend to favor incumbents, reducing the traditional partisan divisions that previously characterized campaign finance.

IV.The Group System: Indispensable but Biased

The pluralist argument that organized groups provide adequate representation of society’s many diverse interests has both strengths and weaknesses.

  • Group activity is basic to self-government; groups are a means of representation and political expression especially for organized minorities and for raising issues neglected by the party system.
  • One of the problems with pluralism is its claim that the group system is reasonably representative. Organization is a political resource that is distributed unequally in society. Certain interests are more powerful than others; these advantaged interests are primarily economic (business) in nature.
  • It cannot be assumed that what a lobbying group receives is what the majority would also want.

Pluralism and interest-group liberalism offer different views regarding the connection between interest groups and the common good.