Introduction

At the start of a new school year, Bianca and her classmates notice fewer after-school activities and clubs. When they ask their principal about it, she says that the town council cut funding for extracurricular activities in schools this year. The students don’t feel this is fair, so they go to the town council meeting later that week to speak to the council members and try to get them to change their minds.

Explanation

By gathering a group of people who all have the same goal of changing a specific policy, Bianca and her classmates have formed an interest group. The group is trying to exert pressure on their council members to change the policy to something the students would find more acceptable.

Interest Groups

Interest groups consist of people that support a particular political interest or area of interests. They exist at all levels of government, from the U.S. Congress to town councils. Part of their function is lobbying, where they lawfully seek to influence a public official on an issue. Interest groups may also try to influence elections through endorsing, funding, or sending members to support a campaign.

The History

The history of interest groups in the United States goes back to the writing of the Constitution. James Madison, in particular, worried about the potential power that “factions,” groups united by a single interest that went against the rights of other citizens, could have. Fearing they would lead to tyranny, he suggested in the Federalist Papers that requiring them to compete with other factions could limit their power. 

However, while the Constitution attempted to limit interest groups’ power, it also protected their right to free speech and their right to petition under the First Amendment. In keeping with this decision, the Supreme Court has continually protected the right of interest groups to lobby. Recent cases even consider corporations to have the same rights as citizens, allowing them the freedom to lobby officials.

Nevertheless, lobbying in the 19th Century mainly took place on a state level, with interest groups appealing to state legislatures for economic changes. While there were a few interest groups, like the National Grange, which advocated for government regulation of railroads starting in 1867, national interest groups began increasing most rapidly in the second half of the 20th Century. 

How It Works

Interest groups allow politicians to hear from various groups on issues on which they may not have an opinion. For instance, a Senator from New York City may not have spent a lot of time thinking about a bill that would affect farmers in the Midwest. 

There are several types of interest groups, and the different categories can depend on who is defining them. Some of the main types are public-interest groups, whose members claim to work toward the public good rather than any desire to profit directly from their work. One example of this type of interest group is the Sierra Club, an environmental conservation group. There are also professional associations and unions, often made up of workers who advocate for their own legal interests and rights, such as the American Federation of Teachers. Perhaps the most powerful are economic interest groups formed around businesses, corporations, and trade associations. One example is ExxonMobil, an oil and gas corporation with a political branch that lobbies for policies that favor oil and gas use. Businesses, corporations, and trade associations make up about half of all interest groups in Washington, D.C.

Some additional types include government interest groups, like the National League of Cities, and single-issue interest groups, which are formed around advocating for or against one specific issue. One example of this is the National Rifle Association, or NRA, which is only interested in gun rights. Other categories sometimes used for interest groups include religious interest groups, civil rights interest groups, and ideological interest groups.

Applying It

Many have criticized America’s interest groups system, saying that large, well-funded interest groups have too much sway over politics and elections. Critics argue that these interest groups, usually associated with a corporation, use their money to buy politicians and decide their vote. While it is illegal to pay a politician directly for their vote, it is legal for a corporation to donate thousands of dollars to a political campaign, and that donation can imply political support from that candidate. For instance, the NRA spends millions on lobbying but spends far more on supporting candidates’ campaigns.

However, there are laws that regulate interest groups and lobbying, such as requiring them to report how much they have spent on different tactics like ads and campaign contributions. From the media to watchdog organizations, many people and organizations keep an eye out for anything suspicious, sometimes leading to politicians spending jail time on charges of corruption tied to lobbyists from interest groups. 

The laws and regulations which govern interest groups have varied throughout the years. One particularly influential case was the 2010 Supreme Court case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which granted corporations legal personhood. Under the First Amendment, the Court decided that corporate funding of independent political broadcasts in candidate elections cannot be limited. Critics argue that this decision allows corporations undue amounts of influence on politicians and elections. 

While interest groups are not inherently good or bad, as there will always be groups of people with similar ideas who seek to influence policies, it is important to know how they work and their effect on politics. To learn more about their influence on your representatives, you can look up your representatives on various websites to see which interest groups have donated money to them and analyze how that relationship may have influenced their votes.

    Learn More

    1. “Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.” Oyez. www.oyez.org, https://www.oyez.org/cases/2008/08-205. 
    2. DeKieffer, Donald E. The Citizen’s Guide to Lobbying Congress. Chicago Review Press, 1997, https://books.google.com/books?id=GmiYbMQg8hIC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false.
    3. “Interest Group | Definition & Facts.” Encyclopedia Britannica. www.britannica.com, https://www.britannica.com/topic/interest-group.
    4. “Lobbying Regulated to Prevent Abuse in US.” Voice of America. www.voanews.com, https://www.voanews.com/usa/lobbying-regulated-prevent-abuse-us.
    5. “National Special Interest Groups.” Vote Smart. justfacts.votesmart.org, https://justfacts.votesmart.org/interest-groups.

    Think Further

    1. If you were to form or join an interest group, what would its focus be? Why are you interested in that specific issue?
    2. Do interest groups do more harm than good? Why or why not?
    3. What are some ways to mitigate the negative effects of interest groups?

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