Some interest groups represent a broad set of interests, while others focus on only a single issue. Some interests are organizations, like businesses, corporations, or governments, which register to lobby, typically to obtain some benefit from the legislature. Other interest groups consist of dues-paying members who join a group, usually voluntarily. Some organizations band together, often joining trade associations that represent their industry or field. Interest groups represent either the public interest or private interests. Private interests often lobby government for particularized benefits, which are narrowly distributed. These benefits usually accrue to wealthier members of society. Public interests, on the other hand, try to represent a broad segment of society or even all persons.
Interest groups often have to contend with disincentives to participate, particularly when individuals realize their participation is not critical to a group’s success. People often free ride when they can obtain benefits without contributing to the costs of obtaining these benefits. To overcome these challenges, group leaders may offer incentives to members or potential members to help them mobilize. Groups that are small, wealthy, and/or better organized are sometimes better able to overcome collective action problems. Sometimes external political, social, or economic disturbances result in interest group mobilization.
Interest groups afford people the opportunity to become more civically engaged. Socioeconomic status is an important predictor of who will likely join groups. The number and types of groups actively lobbying to get what they want from government have been increasing rapidly. Many business and public interest groups have arisen, and many new interests have developed due to technological advances, increased specialization of industry, and fragmentation of interests. Lobbying has also become more sophisticated in recent years, and many interests now hire lobbying firms to represent them.
Some scholars assume that groups will compete for access to decision-makers and that most groups have the potential to be heard. Critics suggest that some groups are advantaged by their access to economic resources. Yet others acknowledge these resource advantages but suggest that the political environment is equally important in determining who gets heard.
Interest groups support candidates sympathetic to their views in hopes of gaining access to them once they are in office. PACs and super PACs collect money from donors and distribute it to political groups that they support. Lawmakers rely on interest groups and lobbyists to provide them with information about the technical details of policy proposals, as well as about fellow lawmakers’ stands and constituents’ perceptions, for cues about how to vote on issues, particularly those with which they are unfamiliar. Lobbyists also target the executive and judiciary branches.
Some argue that contributing to political candidates is a form of free speech. According to this view, the First Amendment protects the right of interest groups to give money to politicians. However, others argue that monetary contributions should not be protected by the First Amendment and that corporations and unions should not be treated as individuals, although the Supreme Court has disagreed. Currently, lobbyist and interest groups are restricted by laws that require them to register with the federal government and abide by a waiting period when moving between lobbying and lawmaking positions. Interest groups and their lobbyists are also prohibited from undertaking certain activities and are required to disclose their lobbying activities. Violation of the law can, and sometimes does, result in prison sentences for lobbyists and lawmakers alike.