Interest Groups and Lobbying
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Interest Groups and Lobbying

Pursuing Political Interests in America

Thomas T. Holyoke

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eBook - ePub

Interest Groups and Lobbying

Pursuing Political Interests in America

Thomas T. Holyoke

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About This Book

Interest Groups and Lobbying shows how political organizations and their lobbyists play a crucial role in how policy is made in the United States. It cuts through the myths and misconceptions about interest groups and lobbyists with an accessible and comprehensive text supported by real world examples and the latest research.

New to the Second Edition

• Fully updates and expands the discussion of social media and other online activity engaged in by interest groups, showing that they have become more sophisticated in their use of the internet – especially social media – for keeping current members informed and for their advocacy work.

• New case studies on more recent advocacy efforts.

• Updated data used in the book, including:

• Total number and types of interest groups lobbying in Washington, DC

• Total number and types of interest groups lobbying in the fifty states

• Data on campaign contributions

• Data on amicus briefs and case sponsorship

• Data on stages of the lawmaking process where interest groups appear to lobby the most

• New data on revolving-door lobbyists

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What is an interest group? Would you recognize an interest group if one called you and asked for money? Or if you saw its logo on a fundraising letter? Perhaps you have seen the logo of the American Bankers Association on one of your local bank’s walls, and even suspected that it refers to some kind of organization representing banks and the people whose profession is banking. Checking the ABA’s website would probably remove any doubt, for anyone looking would immediately see, “The United Voice of America’s Banks. The American Bankers Association proudly represents banks of all sizes and their two million dedicated employees.”1 The web-site also lays out a variety of problems the multitrillion-dollar banking industry apparently has with current government policy, and describes what ABA leaders are doing to convince lawmakers in Congress, the White House, and regulatory agencies to solve them. That sounds like lobbying, and you, like most people, probably associate lobbying with interest groups. If so, then the Center for Education Reform must also be an interest group: its home page says its purpose is to urge lawmakers to enact policies promoting consumer choice in K–12 education because that is what its supporters want.2 Both the Center and the ABA represent a group of Americans who have needs and desires, what we call “interests,” that, they believe, are best fulfilled by changing public policy. It feels right to call them interest groups.
But what about the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, which describes itself as a “nonprofit environmental organization dedicated to the permanent preservation of Nantucket Sound”?3 Made up of residents of Hyannis, Massachusetts, along with their elected officials and civic associations, the Alliance’s goal is to convince the US Federal Aviation Administration to deny approval of a giant solar wind farm on the shores of the Sound. Does that make this environmental organization an interest group? What about the Trans Canada Company or the nonprofit organization Consumer Energy Alliance? From 2012 to 2013 both tried to convince President Barack Obama to permit the construction of the Keystone Pipeline to move oil from Canada to Texas. Or what about Bold Nebraska, which represents people who do not want Obama to approve the pipeline because it might pollute water in the underground Ogallala Aquifer?4 Are they all interest groups?
What about Americans for Prosperity, organized under the federal tax code as a charity by private sector billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch to raise money for conservative candidates in elections and support the Tea Party movement? Is it an interest group even though it does not appear to have any actual members? What about the Tea Party itself? Or any political party? Are they not interest groups because they try to influence policy by changing the ideological composition of elected legislatures rather than changing the minds of people already elected to those legislatures? Is Haliburton, a corporation subsisting on government contracts, an interest group because it aggressively pushes lawmakers to give them these contracts? Is BP Oil an interest group? Citibank? The United Way? What about Southern California’s Metropolitan Water District, a giant public agency that provides municipal water but also spends money to shape policy in the state legislature and battles other political groups such as the Mono Lake Committee for control of water resources? Universities solicit lawmakers for grants to fund large research projects. Are they interest groups too? Or the far-right leaning (and allegedly fake news) website InfoWars that tries to promote conservative causes? Or the hashtag group Black Lives Matter (or #BlackLivesMatter) and its opposite Blue Lives Matter (or #thankublue)? Can these virtual, social media-driven movements demanding justice for African Americans killed by police, or defending police from claims of murder, be interest groups?

Defining Interests and Interest Groups

It is easy to identify members of Congress because the process of becoming one is clearly laid out in the Constitution. Regulatory agencies are also pretty easy to distinguish from other organizations because they are created by acts of Congress. Even political parties can be identified without too much trouble. Interest groups, though, are harder. In fact, scholars cannot even agree on what to call them. Is an “interest group” the same as an “organized interest,” “social movement organization,” “special interest group,” “private interest,” “pressure group,” “lobby,” “nongovernmental organization,” or “political organization”? Perhaps it would be easier to start by thinking about why some entities are not interest groups. Presidents and executive branch officials often pressure Congress to pass (or to not pass) legislation, and members of Congress try to pressure them in return, and they all try to influence the decisions of Supreme Court justices. These policy-makers lobby in that they try to persuade each other to enact policies they desire, but they are not working for interest groups. They serve in institutions created by public law to formally make policies benefitting all citizens within their jurisdictions. They wield powers that flow directly or indirectly from the nation’s most fundamental law, the Constitution. So while government officials and lawmakers lobby each other, no government institution is an interest group. Apologies to the Metropolitan Water District.
Political parties are not interest groups either. Apologies to Democrats, Republicans, and all of America’s small third parties. Parties gain power by trying to get enough of their members elected to office to command a majority and thus directly control governing institutions. To do that, they need the support of a majority of voting citizens, which means trying to represent many different groups of people at once, often bitterly realizing that trying to represent everyone usually results in failing to represent anyone well. When we talk about an interest group, though, we refer to a singular interest. Each group represents one intensely felt need or desire, or at most a few very closely related needs or desires, held by a relatively small number of people. Consequently, most interest groups cannot gain formal political power by electing their members to public office. They represent too few people. Whatever influence interest groups have in government, it is informal rather than formal.
Corporations are not interest groups either. They exist first and foremost to make a profit in the marketplace and return that profit to their shareholders, not lobby for government largesse and favorable policy. Nor do they represent any definable group of people with a shared, common interest. Their shareholders might be considered constituents, but most of them are involved with the company to make money, not influence policy. Corporations often do wade into the political arena, usually because a change in policy (or lack of policy change) will have a direct impact on their financial bottom lines. Some corporate executives have tried to claim they represent the interests of their employees and customers, sometimes even persuading them to contact lawmakers on the company’s behalf, as Allstate Insurance did with its 45,000 employees in the 2011 fight over whether to raise the nation’s debt ceiling (Dash and Schwartz 2011) and as Caterpillar did when the fight happened again in 2013 (Yang and Hamburger 2013). Or, as the ride-sharing service Uber tried to do to prevent California lawmakers from passing legislation reclassifying its contractor-drivers as employees (Conger and Scheiber 2019). CEOs, however, are not accountable to their employees and customers and cannot be said to represent them in the political process. The same is true of universities, hospitals, and similar nonprofit organizations. They are not interest groups. Apologies to Citibank and the United Way. Collectively, corporations and nonprofits have a lobbying presence in Washington, DC, nearly as great as true interest groups (see Chapter 2), but individual corporations tend to only lobby sporadically (Brasher and Lowery 2006). Real interest groups represent some portion of the public, not just their own CEOs.
Interest groups, then, are private organizations, not formal parts of the government, which is why they are sometimes called nongovernmental organizations. They primarily exist to provide informal political representation to citizens, usually by persuading lawmakers that it would be valuable to enact policies that help these citizens pursue strongly felt interests. A person’s interest is fundamental to their character and is often grounded in economic need, aspects of personal identity (e.g., profession, ethnicity, sexual orientation), perceptions of fairness and justice, desires to acquire or achieve, and even metaphysical beliefs and values including religion. More broadly, interests define a person’s perception of who they are and what they believe so strongly, so intensely, that its absence would change their identity. They would be a different person without that interest. Interest groups are thus organized aggregations of people sharing the same interest. It is even true of social media-based groups, if they attract people with a shared interest, hold their attention, and can direct them towards some form of political action promoting that shared interest. So, yes, Black Lives Matter is probably an interest group.
American society is large and diverse, so the number of different interests that are felt intensely enough to motivate people to form an interest group is probably unknowable. Not every individual interest leads to a mobilized interest group, often only because there are not enough other people who share the same interest to form a group, or because people with similar interests are too geographically dispersed (though hashtag and other social media-based groups show that this is not the barrier it used to be). Those who do find enough soul mates who share their interest, who believe the interest should be embedded in the nation’s laws (and thus apply to everyone else), and who are willing to dedicate enough time and money, might then form an interest group. This is the beginning of a workable definition of “interest group,” but further development requires exploring the concept of self-interest.

A Culture of Self-Interest

Interest groups only exist to represent their members’ self-interests. People join or otherwise support an interest group because they want it to advocate for policies that make it easier for them to pursue their personal interests, even though public policy is supposed to treat everyone equally. While some interest groups claim to advocate for the public interest or common good rather than just the good of their members, that is simply their point of view. Ask coal miners and users of energy from coal-fired plants in West Virginia whether the common interest is served when environmental laws force their mines to shut down, putting them out of work. Ask Louisiana’s shrimping industry if it is well served by offshore oil drilling that is supposed to make the United States energy independent even though oil spills kill marine life. Coal miners and shrimpers benefit from cleaner air and cheaper oil but are hurt by lack of income. Policy that serves one person’s idea of what ought to be true for everyone benefits only that person’s self-interest, often at the expense of somebody else’s self-interest.
Simply put, interest groups are created to help people further their personal interests through the nation’s policy-making processes. This should not be surprising. The American political and economic systems are based on the fundamental belief that everyone has a right to pursue his or her own self-interest, and that no one’s interest is more or less legitimate than anybody else’s. The government is expected to protect this right to pursue self-interest, and Americans often look to public officials to help them out by enacting policies prioritizing their self-interest, even when it is harmful to a majority of other citizens. Many may talk about the virtues of compromise and the public interest, but then denounce political leaders as incompetent or corrupt when new policy in any way threatens their self-interests. Compromises are only “obvious” and “sensible” when they give each group what it wants. In other words, no public interest is recognized in the political system, only many individual interests that sometimes aggregate into interest groups. Could it be any other way?

Democracy and Interests in the Classical World

In her book Beyond Adversary Democracy (1980), political theorist Jane Mansbridge argues that it once was different, and how political beliefs subsequently changed to make individual self-interest almost sacred says a lot about why in...

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