By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Discuss the pros and cons of interest groups.
- Discuss the role interest groups play in government.
- Explain how interest group activity is regulated.
The next time you go to a restaurant, look at your waitstaff. They could be making less than minimum wage, or what is called a “subminimum wage” of $2.13. This is due to the assumption that diners will leave a 15 to 20 percent tip that will add to their pay. It doesn’t take a calculator or a genius to see how unstable this wage is. Some diners simply don’t tip, and tip distribution varies from restaurant to restaurant: while “front of house” workers (people who primarily work with diners) might receive an equal share from a pooled tip at the end of the evening, what about line cooks or dishwashers? What if you are a server who provides excellent service—why should you split your tip with someone who barely bothered to say hello to their customers? The advocacy group One Fair Wage points out that the restaurant industry is the fastest growing sector of the economy but the lowest paying and that subminimum wage practices disproportionately hurt women and minority workers.30 During the global COVID-19 pandemic, One Fair Wage was quick to point out how the virus obliterated income for these workers and how, in order to protect the industry, the workers also needed protections. The group continues to advocate for strict health and safety measures for restaurant workers.
Pros of Interest Groups
Interest group participation in politics has its benefits. In Federalist Paper No. 10, James Madison argued that while the threat of factions exists, a healthy representative government will ensure that no single interest monopolizes the government’s attention and that competition among interests (pluralism) will ultimately enhance democracy. From this perspective, the model of interest group activity can be seen as an ideal way to serve the common good because it allows more voices to engage in the political process, which is part and parcel of self-governance.
Ultimately, citizen participation in government is essential in part because political actors have difficulty discerning what is important to the public unless the public itself is involved in the process. Interest group activity is one way the people help the government understand which issues are of greatest concern. Additionally, the act of citizen mobilization is thought to produce social capital, whereby relationships forged in political and other social networks help citizens resolve collective problems. Finally, like HIV/AIDS activists in the early 1980s, interest groups can take up issues that are marginalized by traditional political actors.
Cons of Interest Groups
Theoretically, pluralism should work to protect the interests of the many: when multiple interests strive to be heard by governmental actors, multiple interests are also addressed. However, this can bring about problems of factionalism, where small groups of people with shared interests work to have their wishes represented in government despite majority interests. In other words, as Madison addressed in Federalist Paper No. 10, while a multitude of interests may be represented, not all are heard or responded to equally, and a narrow interest may hijack political attention at the expense of the majority’s needs. Further, the more socially, monetarily, or institutionally resourced an interest, the more influence it enjoys, regardless of how narrow or seemingly obscure it might be.
This latter problem, known as economic bias, is a weakness of the interest group system. As Wesleyan University professor E. E. Schattschneider explains, “The flaw in the pluralist heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper-class accent.”31 Groups that represent business or professional interests tend to be better resourced, and though lower-class interests can be represented, interest group membership itself is mostly skewed toward those who make up the upper-middle and upper classes, as individuals who make up these groups tend to have more time and resources to commit to this type of political activity. In addition, there is a “chicken or egg” characteristic in interest group membership in that, as long as upper-middle-class and upper-class interests are represented, these groups naturally attract individuals from these populations and not those in more disadvantaged groups.
The theory of interest group liberalism highlights another noted weakness of the interest group system.32 Instead of a pluralistic ideal whereby issues important to various groups jostle within the public realm for governmental response, interest group liberalism suggests that officials respond to well-organized groups not because they are good for society but because well-organized interests simply do a better job of demanding governmental action.
What Is An Interest Group?
Any group that shares an interest can form an interest group to try to advance their goals.
How Do Interest Groups Influence Government, and How Are They Regulated?
The formal work of interest groups is referred to as lobbying, the attempt by a group to influence a political outcome. Lobbying can take on different forms, and groups often lobby different branches and types of government. Lobbying itself can be further divided into two categories, inside lobbying and outside lobbying.
Andy Chasin, Vice President of Federal Policy and Advocacy for Blue Shield of California
Please explain what you do for your organization.
I run federal policy and advocacy for Blue Shield of California, a nonprofit health insurer with more than four million members. My job is to provide strategic advice to the company on what’s happening in Washington, DC. I used to work in the Senate on health care policy and now lobby both houses of Congress and work to influence the constant flow of rulemakings coming out of administrative agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services. My company has a political action committee (PAC) that our employees voluntarily support to allow us to attend events with lawmakers. Giving money doesn’t mean that a member of Congress will do what you want, but it does often provide an opportunity to share your perspective on important issues. Ultimately my work is to ensure that health care is affordable and accessible for our members and to urge lawmakers to provide a way to get everyone in America covered in the least disruptive way possible.
What did you study in school?
I went to law school and studied politics, philosophy, and economics as an undergraduate.
What did you learn as an undergraduate that helps you in this position?
The ability to write, think critically, and understand the point of view of different stakeholders is something I use every day.
Inside lobbying occurs when interest groups cultivate contacts and relationships within government. Examples of inside lobbying include lobbying the legislative branch of government, such as the United States Congress, in order to provide testimony, suggest items for consideration, aid in the crafting of legislation, or mobilize constituents to write their members of Congress to support or vote against certain bills. Interest groups also lobby other parts of government, including the executive branch. They do so by working with federal agencies, executive appointees, and in the case of the United States, even the White House to do much of the same work they do when lobbying Congress. This work includes identifying or introducing specific pieces of legislation that will further their cause, providing information for or writing drafts of policy proposals, and mobilizing constituent support. Groups such as the aforementioned One Fair Wage lobby state and local governments to raise state minimum wages for tipped workers, for example.
Interest group lobbying of the judicial system differs from lobbying of other branches because the courts do not write or pass legislation. As such, groups work to influence the judicial branch in other ways. The first is connected to ways groups lobby the other two branches in that interest groups can try to influence judicial appointments by suggesting possible appointees for the other two branches to nominate and confirm. Interest groups also use amicus curiae, or friend of the court, briefs, to lobby the judiciary. Using amicus curiae briefs, groups file official positions to make known to judges and justices their official positions on cases being heard before a court. Depending on the case and the group, interest groups can also use their resources to file cases in lower courts or have appeals heard in higher courts such as the Supreme Court. A recent example is Sierra Club v. Trump, in which the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), acting on behalf of the Sierra Club and Southern Border Communities Coalition, filed suit against President Trump for his use of executive power to fund and build a wall on the southern border of the United States.33 In this instance, three interest groups joined in a case against the executive branch of the government.34 The case, which started in a lower district court, was appealed and made it to the Supreme Court, though the case was dismissed after President Biden rescinded Trump’s executive order to divert funding for the wall.35
Interest groups also utilize tactics such as outside lobbying, also known as indirect lobbying or grassroots lobbying, which entails rallying public support in order to pressure political actors to consider their causes. In outside lobbying, groups call upon their own members as well as the general public to take up the mantle of their cause through a show of public support. The movement to recall California Governor Gavin Newsom is an example of this type of grassroots lobbying.36 The arrest and conviction of the Kings Bay Plowshares 7, a group of activists who entered Kings Bay military facility in the state of Georgia to protest the use of the government’s nuclear arsenal, is an example of how protests and radical activism can be considered a more extreme form of grassroots lobbying.37 Members of Extinction Rebellion go to extreme measures such as gluing themselves to planes in order to call attention to the climate crisis.38
Inside and outside lobbying can look different in Europe. In Switzerland, for example, ballot initiatives, where constituents vote directly on pieces of legislation, alter how interest groups work. The recall effort of California Governor Newsom is also an example of a ballot initiative. Interest groups may be less reliant on policy makers and inside lobbying when they have the option to appeal directly to the public, though studies have shown that the work of lobbying groups tends to be more negative than positive in nature. In other words, instead of lobbying for legislative change, interest groups in Switzerland can act as gatekeepers, working to block laws that are not in the group’s interests.39
In addition to lobbying, interest groups also work to raise and donate funds to directly decide the outcomes of elections. A group’s official fundraising arm is called a political action committee (PAC). PACs can accept up to $5,000 from any single individual and can contribute the same amount to a single candidate or $15,000 to a party. PACs, like interest groups, cover all sorts of interests. For example, when you bite into a hard taco or a gordita from Taco Bell, did you know that you could be contributing to a political candidate? Between 2018 and 2020, the political action committee for Taco Bell, called TACO PAC, raised and donated over $100,000 dollars to Republican candidates and $2,500 to Democrats.40 The PAC describes itself this way: “TACO PAC provides a way for individuals to join their contributions and voice with those of other supporters in the quick-serve franchise restaurant industry including owners and operators.”41 Taco Bell is not the only fast food franchise to contribute to political candidates. In the same election cycle, Wendy’s contributed over $100,000, while McDonald’s gave $500,000.42 PACs such as TACO PAC are regulated in how much they can give to candidates and parties, and they are required to fully disclose their donors. Unlike PACs, super PACs are fundraising groups that can raise and spend unlimited funds provided they do not explicitly coordinate with a candidate.
In the 2020 election cycle, super PAC spending totaled over $2 billion.43
|Super PAC Spending|
Super PACs are not without controversy. Also referred to as independent expenditure-only committees, super PACs can raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, associations, and individuals and then spend the money to campaign for or against candidates or ballot initiatives. The “birth” of super PACs came about in 2010 as a result of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission,44 when the Supreme Court ruled that “limiting ‘independent political spending’ from corporations and other groups violates the First Amendment right to free speech.”45 Critics of this ruling complain that it has led to the rampant rise of super PACs, which empower the wealthiest donors and receive dark money, which is when super PACs receive donations from shell corporations (companies or corporations that exist only on paper for monetary purposes and that, while they have no office and no employees, may have bank accounts) or donors who do not disclose their identities. Super PAC and dark money donations have only grown since the Citizens United ruling.
Interest groups and their lobbyists—as well as wealthy elites—fuel PAC and super PAC activity. As such, part of regulating interest group activity means monitoring lobbyists and the work they perform, be it inside or outside lobbying. However, the number of lobbyists that work to influence the government is a point of contention. Between 2009 and 2019, the number contracted from roughly 13,000 to around 11,000, but American University professor James Thurber refutes these numbers, explaining that they represent registered lobbyists rather than the entirety of the lobbyist population, which he calculates to be closer to 100,000.46 The latest attempt to reform lobbying practices, the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007, placed tighter restrictions on campaign contributions through PACs and on campaign travel and adjusted definitions of what constitutes a lobbyist, whether an “in-house” lobbyist who works within an organization or an “outside” lobbyist who is hired to represent interest groups. Among other changes, the act included so-called “revolving door bans,” which require elected officials to wait at least a year after serving in government before joining a lobbying firm, and limited the monetary value of gifts lobbyists can receive.47 On January 20, 2021, President Biden signed an executive order further strengthening lobbying regulations, pledging an executive branch “revolving door ban” of two years and banning golden parachutes, exit bonuses that reward executives leaving private companies upon entering federal government positions, among other restrictions.48
The United States is not the only government to contend with the ethics of lobbyists. While the EU developed the European Transparency Initiative (ETI) in 2005 to enhance transparency in EU policy making and boost confidence in decision-making processes, scholars like University of Pittsburgh law professor William Luneburg point out that these regulations are not enforced and require minimal information (who they represent, for example) on the part of the lobbyist, and in countries such as Germany, Georgia, Lithuania, and Poland, lobbyist registration is wholly voluntary and thus lacks teeth in terms of acting as an enforcement measure.49