Virtually any discussion of contemporary American social issues has to be framed within the vast array of interest groups and lobbyists who advocate for or resist the adoption of new policies. Of all the nations in the world, interest groups and lobbyists are more important to the outcomes of social issues in the United States and especially in the contemporary political era. If one just follows the course of U.S. politics by reading the political articles in the New York Times or the Washington Post, one would quickly notice that almost every social issue is understood by an examination of the powerful interest groups involved in the political battles. The essence of the process of U.S. politics is interest groups and lobbying.
I. The Foundations of Interest Group Politics in America: James Madison’s Warnings
II. The Nature of the American Interest Group System
III. Money: The Mother’s Milk of Interest Group Politics and Lobbying
The Foundations of Interest Group Politics in America: James Madison’s Warnings
Every society has interests. Even the most ancient or primitive societies had key interests such as religion, agriculture, warriors, artisans, businesses or trades, and government. The 13 American colonies in the late 1780s had various interests—some promoted by groups with substantial political and economic power. James Madison, the father of the U.S. Constitution and author of some of the most important Federalist Papers (written in defense of the proposed Constitution), warned about the “danger of factions.” Factions in the 1780s were an early form of interest group, and Madison designed the new federal government created by the Constitution as a large republic in order to reduce the power of these interests in the United States. Interest groups and lobbying cannot be eliminated in a free society without sacrificing liberty, so the best that can be done is to create a governmental structure with checks and balances and divisions of power so that powerful interests are less likely to dominate government and public policy.
The causes of faction are based “in the nature of man,” and the “most common and durable source of factions has been the unequal distribution of property,” wrote Madison. Property in a free society and economy will always be distributed in unequal amounts and types; thus, factions (or interests) will always be present.
Since, as Madison argued, there can be no cure for the causes of faction, one must focus on methods for reducing the negative impacts of factions (or interests) on the political system. This is also one of Madison’s great contributions to the establishment of the U.S. political system: the complex or large republic. “A Republic . . . promises the cure for which we are seeking.” Madison designed a republic, not a democracy. The republic is a representative government, not a government of direct citizen decision making. The representatives would use their wisdom to discover the “true interest of their country.”
The dangers that Madison envisioned have become more apparent in recent decades as money has flooded into the political system and interest groups have moved to provide millions of dollars to politicians for their campaigns (Kaiser 2010). The 2008 elections cost over $5 billion. Annually, lobbying in Washington and in state capitals costs over $6 billion, and that is just a portion of the grand total (Center for Responsive Politics 2010).
The Nature of the American Interest Group System
When the French aristocrat Alex de Tocqueville toured the new American nation in the 1830s, he was amazed by the tendency of Americans to organize interest groups to advocate social change. Compared to the politics of “Old Europe,” Americans preferred to use political organizations to pursue their social objectives. Modern comparative political science supports that conclusion. Among the peoples of developed nations, Americans belong to more interests groups than any other people and expect these groups to promote their interests and preferences for them. Those in the other developed nations tend to leave such tasks to political parties (Hrebenar 1997 ).
The Encyclopedia of Associations lists over 20,000 interest groups operating in the United States in the early 21st century (Hunt 2004). The primary focus point for interest groups and lobbying is the U.S. national capital, Washington, DC. In the past several decades, many interest groups moved their national headquarters to K Street so that they can be close to the action on Capitol Hill. Over 20,000 lobbyists are registered in Washington, DC, and that figure represents only a part of the total of lobbyists representing all types of interests and issue areas.
As more and more state governments have expanded their budgets and activities in recent decades, the state-level interest group systems have become more professional and powerful. Interest group politics in Sacramento, California, Albany, New York, and Springfield, Illinois, have come to resemble that found in Washington, DC.
Who are these lobbyists? Many of them are lawyer-lobbyists. In the latter half of the last century, Washington law firms discovered a new revenue stream can be generated by adding a lobbying corps to the basic law firm. Lawyers have many of the skills that make for effective lobbyists. They are trained to understand the law and how it is made, interpreted, and implemented. They are also trained to be effective negotiators— and negotiation is a crucial activity for lobbyists trying to persuade others to support the political objectives of their clients. Many lobbyists are former bureaucrats who have served for a number of years in the governmental bureaucracy—often as staff members for the Congress and its specialized committees or as staff members for the various departments or agencies of government. Holding such jobs gives these lobbyists both subject expertise and lots of personal contacts with government decision makers. Former members of Congress are also valued as future lobbyists given their experience in various issue areas, political knowledge, and contacts in government. Finally, some lobbyists emerge from within the ranks of interest groups’ employees and work their way up the ranks to jobs in political affairs, governmental relations, or as executive directors—top lobbyists for many interest groups in Washington (Hrebenar and Thomas 2004).
What do lobbyists do? Primarily, lobbyists provide information to governmental decision makers. They act as representatives of the various interests to the representatives in government. The types of information they provide vary depending on the background of the lobbyist, the policy situation, the political environment, and the governmental decision maker they are lobbying. Some lobbyists are the nation’s foremost experts in a particular and very specialized field, such as the extraction of oil from shale (a rock). Others can advise on the nature of public opinion regarding a particular bill, and still others can help plan strategy for getting a bill passed in Congress or a regulation approved in the federal bureaucracy. Since lobbyists represent so many different groups involved in a particular policy debate, a huge amount of useful information is available to the decision makers. Some lobbyists act as watchdogs for their interests—monitoring the key sites of government and reporting back to their interests if anything is happening in a department, agency, or house of Congress that may impact upon the interest. Others are pure advocates or contact lobbyists—often assigned to the White House, the Congress, or a particular department of the bureaucracy and having a variety of contacts in these sites they can use to try to effect a particular outcome. Some lobbyists are specialists in putting together coalitions for a particular bill and thus maximizing the power behind their cause by dividing up the work needed to achieve victory.
One of the major changes that has characterized lobbying in recent years has been the growing sophistication of the tools of the trade (Cigler and Loomis 2006). In decades past, lobbying was exclusively a face-to-face communications activity. Now, however, much of the communications is increasingly electronic, with e-mail messages replacing the old standard of sending a letter or a telegram to your congressperson. In the 1960s and 1970s, such communications were usually by fax or telephone; now, the Internet is used to alert the group’s membership to ask them to help lobby the decision makers. This type of lobbying, the activation of members to get out the message, is called grassroots lobbying. There are several types of grassroots lobbying: “shotgun grassroots,” where the activation of many members of an organization or coalition is the goal and thus, maybe millions of members may communicate their support; and “rifling grassroots,” where the activation of some elite members of the organization produces a more personal and more effective type of communications. When grassroots lobbying is perceived to be ineffective because it seems too artificial or characterized by many very similar, if not identical, messages, it is called “Astroturf”—after the plastic grass of the Astrodome in Houston.
Another electronic form of contemporary lobbying is found in the various outlets of mass media. While billboards and lawn and telephone signs used to be an effective form of issue communication in the 1950s and 1960s, now television, especially cable television, offers interest groups the ability to target very specific groups of people. An interest group can run television ads in just the congressional districts represented by all the wavering members of a specific congressional committee considering a bill of great import to the group. This is what the Health Insurance Association of America did in 1993 with its now famous “Harry and Louise” ads, as the Clinton administration tried to pass a health care reform bill. The ads cast doubt on many parts of the proposed law, which finally died in Congress without an up-or-down vote. Recent decisions by the Supreme Court, including Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010), have made such advocacy TV ads a much more readily available tool for interest groups to use in electoral campaigns in support of politicians who favor their cause or against those who oppose it.
Many interests, especially those seeking to challenge the existing social, political, or economic orders in the United States, do not have the resources to engage in multimillion- dollar TV advertising campaigns. These interests have some types of resources that can allow them to participate in the political process—even if they are at a serious disadvantage in terms of money and other resources that their more established opponents have in abundance. These interests are usually called social movements because they lack the organization, formal membership, and resources of more traditional interest groups. This is not to say that they are not important parts of the political system. In some cases, they represent millions of people who support to one degree or another a particular policy outcome such as equality of treatment for gays and lesbians or express the anger and frustration voiced by the Tea Party supporters in 2010’s elections. These interests usually try to gain greater public support for their cause by creating free media events that allow them to gain free media coverage for their cause. Thus, the tools of choice are marches, demonstrations, boycotts, and various actions that draw people—and especially the media—to cover them and their cause. Many of the great interest groups of the contemporary United States began as disorganized social movements and after some success evolved into the more conventional form of interest groups employing the conventional strategies and tactics of such groups. Some of the groups that emerged out of these broader movements include the National Organization of Women, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Friends of the Earth.
Money: The Mother’s Milk of Interest Group Politics and Lobbying
Money is called the “mother’s milk of politics” because it can be converted into so many other resources that are valuable to lobbying. It can be used to build a powerful organizational structure with a staff of experts; it can be used to hire powerful, knowledgeable leadership; it can be used to access the mass media to communicate a group’s position in important issue debates; it can be used to organize a grassroots campaign; it can be used to help finance the political campaigns of politicians favorable to its cause; it can even be used to finance a public relations campaign to change the public’s image of the group and thus enhance its persuasiveness in the issue debates.
Powerful interests such as the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP, the huge, 35-million-member lobby of senior citizens) have hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues each year to support lobbying campaigns. Wall Street and the U.S. banking industry poured tens of millions of dollars into both Republican and Democratic party campaigns in recent years trying to gain the access they needed to protect their interests if the financial system collapsed (as it did in 2008) and calls for greater regulation of the financial industry threatened the industry. Supporters and opponents of the Obama administration’s health care reform bill of 2010 also spent hundreds of millions of dollars in lobbying the issue as well as tens of millions of dollars in donations to campaigns of members of Congress in 2006 and 2008.
What does money buy for an interest? First and foremost, access. Interests that make big donations to a political campaign or a political party can expect to have access to key political leaders and an opportunity to make their arguments at key times during the debates. Interests that do not “play the money game” will have a far more difficult time gaining access. They may eventually get some access, but how seriously will they be listened to? Do large campaign contributions buy favorable decisions for the rich interest groups? There is considerable debate on this. Some argue that it does and can point to hundreds of examples where the big contributors often get the laws and regulations they want—give or take a few details. Others argue that the politicians they support financially in election campaigns already support these outcomes regardless of the financial contributions. What is clear, in any case, is that money does buy access, and the outcomes in policy frequently follow the preferences of the groups that give the money to the politicians for their campaigns.
In the final analysis, the outcomes of debates over controversial social issues in U.S. politics are closely linked to major interest groups and the skills and persuasiveness of their lobbyists. To understand which issues rise to be discussed and then dealt with by the legislatures and executives across the nation, one must understand the roles played by interest groups, mass movements, and lobbyists; and one must also understand how these powerful organizations impact these outcomes and, ultimately, the future of U.S. society. As political scientist Jeffrey Berry has put it, ours is an “interest group society” (Berry and Wilcox 2008).
Ronald J. Hrebenar
- Berry, Jeffrey, and Clyde Wilcox, Interest Group Society. New York: Longman, 2008.
- Burbank, Matthew J., Ronald J. Hrebenar, and Robert C. Benedict, Parties, Interest Groups, and Political Campaigns. Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2008.
- Center for Responsive Politics, Lobbying Database. 2007. http://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/
- Cigler, Allan, and Burdett A. Loomis, Interest Group Politics. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Press, 2006.
- Costain, Anne E., and Andrew S. McFarland, Social Movements and American Political Institutions. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998.
- Hrebenar, Ronald, Interest Group Politics in America. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1997.
- Hrebenar, Ronald, and Bryson B. Morgan, Lobbying in America: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009.
- Hrebenar, Ronald J., and Clive S. Thomas, “Interest Groups in the States.” In Politics in the American States, ed. Virginia Gray and Russell L. Hanson. Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2004.
- Hunt, Kimberly N., Encyclopedia of Associations. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale-Thomson, 2004.
- Kaiser, Robert G., So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government. New York: Vintage Books, 2010.
- Meyer, David S., The Politics of Protest: Social Movements in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.