Interest Groups


Public outrage forced CBS to withdraw from its network its biased film about former President Ronald Reagan. Public outrage also forced the Florida legislature to pass a special law to save the life of Terri Schiavo-Schindler. A court had ordered her feeding tube removed based on statements by her estranged husband that Terri did not want to live anymore. This special law gave the feeding tube back to Terri.

These were not acts of political parties, though the Republican Party did play minor roles. This was the public at large, acting through “interest groups” and as individuals, that forced action. In this lecture, we will talk about “interest groups.”

What is an Interest Group?

It is an organization of people who agree on an issue, and try to influence government policy on that issue. Examples are pro-life groups, pro-environment groups, pro-gun rights groups, pro-gun control groups, and so on. How many can you name?

Interest groups are very different from political parties. Members of interest groups usually come from multiple parties and independents. Interest groups cut across party lines. Both Democrats and Republicans belong to pro-life groups, for example. The same is true for virtually every other interest group.

The motivation for an interest group is to work with both parties towards a specific goal. It focuses on only one issue, or a small number of connected issues, and thus channels all its energy towards that end. It is unconcerned with many other issues affecting political parties.

For example, the National Right to Life does not take a position on taxes, immigration, the environment, Social Security, etc. When asked whether it supports the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), it responded that it would if the Amendment were changed to make sure it did not authorize abortion or funding of abortion. That is its issue, while others oppose ERA for many other issues, too.

Both Democratic and Republican candidates can seek the support of the National Rifle Association (NRA), which is a large and particularly powerful interest group. It sends a questionnaire to candidates to see if they agree with gun rights. It can help candidates become elected by endorsing them or raising campaign money for them.

The Sierra Group is a famous pro-environment interest group. There are also pro-abortion interest groups and other interest groups for just about any issue imaginable.

About a hundred years ago, there was an interest group that grew so powerful that its single issue was inserted into the Constitution by amendment. Can you name that issue? (Prohibition – abolishing all alcohol. It was passed as the 18th Amendment, and later repealed during the Depression as the 21st Amendment.)

Comparing Interest Groups to Political Parties

Some people prefer to work in political parties, while others prefer to work in interest groups. Let’s compare the two.

Political parties address all the issues. Workers in political parties are part of the biggest gang in the United States, typically either the Republican or Democratic Party. When someone in their party wins an election, the worker can claim some credit and celebrate. This is true from the most obscure political job right up the presidency.

People donate their time to political parties because they care about more than one issue. They feel it is important to address many issues, and elect officials to address future issues that have not yet arisen.

For example, a year ago the public was not paying attention to Terri Schiavo-Schindler. Yet people worked very hard to elect Republican Jeb Bush governor of Florida, and also to elect a Republican legislature. Those who voted for Bush expected him to do the right thing on existing issues, and unforeseeable issues. And he did: he recently signed a new law that saved Terri’s life.

Party loyalists try to put people who think like them into office and then let them make the decisions. Let the experts – the right experts – handle the issues as they develop. Work on placing the right people on the field, as in sports, and then let them play the game as best they can.

This approach takes a dim view of spending time trying to persuade someone in an opposing political party. It is often a waste of time. You can spend hours, days or even weeks trying to persuade a member of a political party to do something, only to find him voting as his leadership told him to. It is unrealistic to think you can persuade a Democratic to support the Republican President Bush in a public way. Spend your limited time building your favorite party rather than trying to persuade likely opponents.

Interest groups take a different approach. They say that Republicans will be Republicans, and Democrats will be Democrats. It’s been true for 140 years, and could be true for another 140 years. They do not see one party winning over the other. Instead, try to work with both parties on a particular issue.

Also, interest groups focus on one or a few issues to maximize their impact. Many pro-lifers feel that abortion is by far the most important issue in America. No other political issue is even close. They do not care if someone is Democratic or Republican, Libertarian or Green (pro-environment). What is his or her position on abortion? That is the only question needed to be asked, some feel.

A party worker, even a pro-life one, will tell you that all issues are connected and often it is difficult to win on one issue without winning others. For example, winning on the pro-life issue requires reestablishing respect for human life. It may take changing what is taught in public schools, where over 90% of Americans form their beliefs. If people think humans are just animal tissue because they were taught that in school, then they may not become pro-life.

The interest groups will respond by saying that if a candidate is wrong on the pro-life issue, then that politician is usually wrong on everything else too. Voters don’t have the time or interest to find out where candidates stand on numerous issues. Besides, candidates often lie. Find out where a candidate stands on the life issue, and the rest is obvious.

Yes, party officials say, but at the end of the day candidates are elected as a Republicans or Democrats, and those persons make the decision. President Bush signed the ban on partial birth abortion because the Republican Party has a pro-life platform. It took hard work to keep that platform pro-life, too. The Republican National Coalition for Life puts enormous time and effort into this cause.

Where would you prefer to spend your time – working in a political party or in an interest group?

Lobbyists and PACs

Lobbyists are people hired by large companies or interest groups to try to influence public policy. They work in the capital cities of states (e.g., Trenton, NJ, or Jefferson City, MO, or Austin, TX) or in Washington, D.C., the capital of the federal government. Federal lobbyists have offices on “K” street, a luxurious area of D.C. In 1968, there were only 62 lobbyists there. Now there are 21,000 of them, mostly well paid.

Their job is to make friends with congressmen and senators and the president and their staffs, and then exert influence on legislation or an action by a federal agency. The lobbyists play golf with the politicians, send them birthday cards, take their staff out to dinner, and show up at the Christmas parties. When a tragedy strikes, they are there to make people feel better. The lobbyists thereby form bonds that become very strong and influential.

It is not easy being a congressman, senator or even the president. If it looks easy, it isn’t. They constantly worry about reelection and possible embarrassment. Everyone is looking to knock them down. Often they deserve to be ousted from office, so the fear is justified!

Lobbyists make the politicians feel better. Make them feel loved. Send them candies and tell them how great they are. Then, at the right time, the lobbyists just ask for a small favor: insert a few lines into a piece of legislation for them. The politician doesn’t have any reason not to. And another few million dollars goes out the door of the federal government as a grant or tax break for a special interest group.

The lobbyists have their biggest impact on the staff of congressmen, who are the ones doing most of the work. Imagine yourself as a staff worker for a Republican in the North, or a Democrat in the South. You see which way the wind is blowing: Republicans are losing in the North and Democrats are losing in the South. When your boss, the congressman or senator, loses reelection or retires, you are out of your job. And even if he wins, you are not making much and you are working very long hours.

The lobbyist tells you how much better is to work on “K” street as a lobbyist rather than on Capitol Hill for the U.S. Government. The lobbyists make more money and have more fun, you are told. If you impress the lobbyist, then he’ll put in a good word for you and try to get you a nice job. Next thing you know, all the staffers are trying harder to please the lobbyists than to serve the public.

Lobbyists also help raise money for politicians for their reelection, in the form of political action committees (PACs). These are special accounts set up to raise money that can be given to a candidate. Every large company has one. Employees are told they should donate to the company’s PAC so that it can give money to important politicians in D.C. It has become necessary to donate to politicians to help them win, in order to catch their attention. You can bet politicians appreciate those who send money for reelection.

What Would James Madison Say?

What would James Madison say about this? Recall Federalist No. 10, which was the first handout in this course. He opposed interest groups, which he called ‘factions”. Was he right?

Moderates today, and particularly the media, oppose conservative interest groups. Pro-life, pro-gun, anti-tax groups are portrayed in the media as narrow-minded people who care only about one thing. That, of course, is not true: interests group care about many issues, but choose to focus on only one. They are maximizing their influence that way.

It is unlikely that James Madison, himself a bit of a moderate in his day, would like interest groups. He would worry that an interest group may capture control of the federal government. He would fear that pro-abortion interest groups might capture the entire government. Then what?

A response might be that the pro-abortionists did capture the federal government, and only pro-life interest groups can correct the situation. All it takes is for five Justices on the Supreme Court to issue a ruling like Roe v. Wade and there is a huge problem. Besides, the media act like one big interest group that promotes abortion. It takes new interest groups to combat this effectively.

Regulating Interest Groups

The First Amendment protects interest groups. Government cannot abolish them, but can it regulate them?

John McCain almost won the Republican nomination for president by emphasizing one issue: reforming the finance of political campaigns. Senator McCain particularly disliked how an interest group could spend millions a few days before an election to sway the public against a candidate. He said that is unfair.

The media also dislike how interest groups could influence elections by running ads just before voting. These ads detract from the power of the media to influence the outcome of an election. The media loved McCain partly because they agreed on this issue.

National Right to Life was so upset at McCain’s attempt to muzzle interest groups that it ran ads attacking McCain in the New Hampshire presidential primary in 2000, even though McCain has a pro-life voting record. The ads backfired, and McCain defeated Bush.

What do you think about the right of interest groups to run expensive ads just before an election? Should it be limited? In the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002, Congress prohibited political ads by interest groups within 60 days of an election, and the Supreme Court heard a challenge to its constitutionality last September. A decision is expected soon. Do you think this regulation is constitutional?

Election Results

Every November, America changes a bit because there are elections. It is always worth pausing to observe what happened.

This time, the South became more Republican and the North became more Democratic. Republicans won governorships in Kentucky and Mississippi; Democrats took control of the New Jersey Senate.

This is part of a 30-year trend for political realignment in this country. People tend to vote regionally. At the time of the Civil War, the North was solidly Republican and the South was solidly Democratic. Now it has shifted to become the opposite.

In 2004, the Democrats may not win a single southern state, and Bush may not win a single northern one (east of the Mississippi River). To win reelection, however, Bush will probably have to win West Virginia, New Hampshire and Ohio, which are in the North. He was able to win those states in 2000, but will they have moved to the Democratic side by 2004?

In New York, Mayor Bloomberg (a moderate) failed in his attempt to change New York primaries from “closed” to “open”. The parties opposed his referendum to allow independents to vote in party primaries, and the parties beat the mayor. Never underestimate the power of political parties.

In Mississippi, famous Republican lobbyist Haley Barbour won the governorship. So sometimes lobbyists become top government officials themselves. The door between government and lobbyists revolves round-and-round.


1. Democratic presidential contender Howard Dean was in the lead, and all his rivals ganged up on him on the issue of the Confederate Flag. Dean said he wanted people who drive in pick-up trucks with the Confederate Flag in their window to vote for him. His opponents say that is an offensive and improper appeal for votes. Was Dean hurt by this?

2. Do you think there should be regulation of interest group ads just prior to elections?