Most people feel that cigarettes are bad for their health and most want to prevent young people from taking up smoking. Yet, when it comes to passing anti-smoking legislation and using tax payers money to subsidize tobacco growers, the wishes (and health) of the majority usually lose out to to the concerns of a well-organized minority whose economic well being depends on the tobacco industry. This is just one example of a special interest group influencing the political process even if it proves to be harmful to the greater good of the nation.
Interest groups play many important roles in the American political process. (1) They represent their members to the government; (2) they provide channels for citizen participation; (3) they "educate" (from their own perspective) their members, government officials, and the public at large; (4) they influence the public aganda by putting issues before the government; and (5) they monitor programs important to their members. In general, Americans tend to distrust interest groups but like the ones that represent their views ind interests.
Interest groups' goals are carried out by lobbyists and political action committees (PAC's).
Most interest groups in the United States are formed by (A) business and trade associations, (B) labor unions, and (C) citizens with a specific public interest.
Wealthy and educated Americans are the most likely to join interest groups. People on the other end of the socioeconomic scale (such as public housing tenants) and young people are the least likely to participate.
Historically, interest groups such as suffragettes, prohibitionists, and labor unions have had a profound impact on influencing government policies. The AFL-CIO stimulated such measures as child labor laws, the minimum wage, and health insurance. The NAACP pushed for the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1950's and 60's.
Recently, interest groups have been more effective than political parties in articulating specific policy positions.
In Federalist #10 Madison acknowleged that special interest groups (factions) are an inevitable result of liberty and human nature and he argued for a political system that could control the effects of factions.
The lion's share of special interest financial contributions to political campaigns comes from corporate PAC's, and most PAC money is targeted at incumbents who have power over the PAC's particular area of interest.
According to federal law, the largest amount of hard money a PAC can contribute to a candidate is $5,000 per election. There are no limits on soft money contributions.
In reaction the huge amount of soft money contributions made to presidential candidates and the reelection committees of senators and representatives many citizens, and some legislators and public figures (ex. Sen. John McCain, Ralph Nader), are calling for campaign finance reform.
In the 1970's Congress pased legislation that required full disclosure of all PAC contributions to candidates for national office, Efforts to regulate lobbying activities, however, may conflict with the 1st Amendment right to petition the government (Buckley v. Valeo).
Other methods employed by special interest groups to influence the political agenda include direct lobbying, testifying at congressional committee hearings, "educating" officials with "research" information, filing lawsuits, appealing to public opinion (ex. buying TV, radio and newspaper ads), socializing "informally" with government officials ("It's who you get to know"), treating congressmen to all-expense paid trips or dinners, using "influential constituents"(ex. Bill gates), sending letters to their own membership, and recruitng more members to their organizaton (ex. AFL-CIO, MADD, VFW, NAACP, NRA).
Recently, the image of lobbyists has taken a blow because they have attracted negative publicity. Elected officials (such as members of Congress or the Cabinet) who become highly paid lobbyists after they leave office have been criticized for taking unfair advantage of contacts they developed while they were in office. In addition, many bureaucrats who were former corporate lobbyists still maintain a relationship with the industry they are now supposed to be "regulating".
There are two theories regarding the influence of special interest groups in the American political system:
(A) Pluralists - believe that competing interest groups are healthy because (1) they provide people with a political connection to government and (2) the existence of many interest groups prevents any one group from dominating the government.
(B) Elitists - believe that American politics is being corrupted by the largest and richest organizations who are able to "buy" politicians of both parties.
interest group entrepreneur
political action committees (PAC's)
public interest group
Buckley v. Valeo (1976) - [see The Bill of Rights; a user's guide].
McCain Feingold Bill (not in text)