Interest groups are defined by Berry as an organized body of individuals who share goals and try to influence public policy (Berry 1989). The American political process is characterised as being driven by money and because of the huge amount of finance given to politicians to shape their course of action, interest groups are often blamed for this. Decisions are made not according to the voting public, but to the financial incentive promised to so many elected officials by lobbyists, corporations and dominant interest groups. The question being addressed here is if the democratic political process has been overshadowed by the power which interest groups wield.
I will talk of the nature of the American political system and how, because of its composition, interest groups are an integral part of the organism. I will show how because of the nature of the system, they are necessary and at times innocuous, before discussing the corruption that has taken place and how severe the situation has become.
Defining this corruption is a difficult thing because there is such an array of perspectives on it but “it is clear that corruption involves conduct that violates some set of ‘reasonable standards'” (Johnston 1982 p4). Arnold Heidenheimer understood this difficulty in defining corruption but talked of three cases: betrayal of or deviation from common interest in favor of special interests that provide direct benefits to government officials; deviation from law or norm of public trust; and use of authority or monopoly to maximize personal gains from dispensing public benefits to selected recipients (Heidenheimer 1970).
Interest groups share a common set of objectives and have joined together in an effort to persuade the government, often by forming relationships with members of the administration, Congress and civil servants. There are tens of thousands of interest groups, but that is not to say that all interests are represented fully and equally. “The political desk is heavily stacked in favour of those interests able to organize and to wield substantial economic, social and institutional resources” (Lowi and Ginsberg 2000 p308). The framers were aware of the potential hegemony that organized interests could enjoy, but at the same time strongly believed in freedom of expression, so a dilemma arose of how to balance power and freedom.
James Madison’s solution has remained an integral part of US politics to this day – the theory of pluralism, an assumption that competition among interests will produce balance and compromise (with the interest groups keeping each other in check). Thus, America acts as a neutral, pluralist society which promotes freedom of expression and encourages organization of individuals to pursue causes in a form of political consensus. Perhaps it is because of this stress on liberty and equality that there is such scepticism of interest groups – many believe that rather than being an impartial society, the US is in fact an elite society, where pluralism favours business rather than equality.
Interest groups provide benefits to their members to ensure annual membership fees keep coming in and act as representatives for the large numbers who wish to participate. Considering the low voter turnout in the United States, the number of those who do participate in politics (by writing letters, signing petitions, lobbying local governments) is comparatively high thanks to these interest groups. These groups educate the public on important issues and that is certainly no bad thing for democracy. Another function of interest groups is to act as a monitor, for example groups like Vectra watch over ex-service men and look out for their interests. These organizations use various methods of influence, lobbying Congress has become a fierce business (indeed the Federal Lobby Directory lists 28,000 individual lobbyists and 2,771 lobbying firms).
Another is gaining ‘access’, in other words forging relationships with congressmen and officials to guarantee favourable legislation (not to be confused with lobbying, this talks of actual involvement in the decision making process which I will discuss in full at a later stage). The interest groups can use the courts to influence policy and use public campaigns to mobilize support (this is especially important in grass-roots lobbying where more and more money is being spent on influencing local governments). Electoral politics is used by interest groups who realise that ensuring the right legislators come to office is more important than influencing existing ones – they do this by donations using Political Action Committees, which is an issue at the very centre of the debate of mistrust and corruption, and something I will consider shortly.
Interest groups do have their advantages and many argue that the role they play can benefit democracy rather than damage it. In a pluralist society, groups are free to organize and to represent, and subsequently the political process exists to balance competing interests. This system of representation of varied interests suits the American system perfectly because of the make-up of the political process. Unlike here in the UK, the parties in the US are weak and do not follow a distinct set of opinions. The officials elected do not owe their party anything for getting chosen, and are therefore free to act with independence.
Both the Republican and Democrat parties are renowned for positioning themselves at the centre of the political spectrum so as to please as many voters as possible, and Congressmen often vote against the party line. A result of this is a frustrated electorate who seeks representation for their conflicting interests, and do not receive it from the elected officials – groups can mobilize huge support and force changes from the politicians who seem to distance themselves further from the public each year. Also interest groups act as a tool of scrutiny of the administration, and by holding them to account, they make the process more open. It does not seem surprising then, that interest groups politics is prosperous and has been for decades.
It is inevitable that with the amount of press coverage it receives, spiraling campaign finance is often pointed to as one of the main dangers of the political process, but there are many who believe the problem has been over-exaggerated. It is argued that the amount of money spent on candidates is necessary because the nation is so large, so to appeal to enough voters takes a lot of effort. This is particularly the case in primary elections when virtually unheard of candidates aim to attract a large, diverse number of voters. If political parties helped with these (and indeed all) elections, the candidates would have a guiding hand in garnering support from sections of society that are likely to have similar beliefs. However because the elections aren’t controlled by strong parties, vast numbers of candidates put themselves forward and the figures for campaign finance are increased.
The role of interest groups in politics has increased since 1945 but particularly since 1970 with the introduction of PAC legislation in 1971/72. Subsequently big business became much more powerful and campaign contributions and lobbying expenditure has shot up. However it is important to note that not all want the numbers to keep rising, reforms are continually being drawn up to try and control the spending and whether or not they will be successful, it is significant that the problem has been highlighted. Indeed there are ‘public interest’ groups such as Common Cause and Public Campaign who were set up to try and represent the public and ask questions traditionally overlooked by interest groups. Common Cause was set up in 1970 and campaigns for further spending limits in elections and tighter controls on lobbyists.
The subject of corruption of the political process often highlights the tightly knit relationships between lobbyists and congressmen, indeed it is estimated that $116 million was spent on lobbying Congress and federal officials by companies and organisations every month in 1999. So perhaps it is these relationships that need to be explored as a test of how much these interest groups corrupt the political process. It is not rare to hear scepticism about the dealings between lobbyists and legislators, and some information has seriously damaged the credibility of congressmen.
One report talks of a lobbyist actually writing legislation for Congressmen – Elizabeth Drew, a respected political journalist wrote an account of the Congress between 1995 and 1997. She talked of a lobbyist working for the energy and petro-chemical industries writing the first draft of a bill. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so damaging if it wasn’t such a decisive piece of legislation. The bill was set to introduce a freeze on federal regulations that directed the way in which the energy and petro-chemical industries operated.
It is widely believed in the US that congressmen are likely to act improperly and the average voter assumes that these legislators behave scandalously (Williams 1998). This could be because of the bad press that politicians receive but it is difficult to claim that they deserve anything else. There is a history of scandal and corruption within Congress, with cases such as ‘Koreagate’ and ‘Abscam’ damaging the reputation of congressmen on an apparently permanent basis. ‘Koreagate’ was related to bribery of congressmen by a Korean lobbyist (linked with intelligence officials from the Korean government) in the 1970’s and resulted in the imprisonment of one former congressman.
The name of congressmen was dented further in 1982 when the FBI undertook an operation to expose corruption in the legislative branch – referred to as ‘Abscam’. Those members of the House and Senate beings set up were convicted of accepting money to resolve supposed immigration and business problems and were eventually imprisoned. It seems that corruption has become an enduring element of the political scene and at least some of the responsibility must lie with interest groups – accepting money in exchange for legislation has become familiar to the electorate.
Much of the negative press which the interest groups receive is related to interpretation of the constitution, with groups using it and breaking it down to justify a particular stance. The National Rifle Association uses the second amendment to validate its claims that guns should remain legal, this is enforced by the lobbying supremacy of its 175,000 activists and the backing of three million members. The situation has got so severe that even seemingly commonsensical legislation has been overturned due to pressure from interest groups. An example of this is the NRA lobbying the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals during the 2000 US vs Emerson case.
The legislation stated that those citizens with a history of domestic violence or with a restraining order are prohibited from owning guns, something which seems completely rational when you consider the problem of gun crime in America. However the NRA believed this was an infringement of the citizen’s rights to bear arms and after submitting an amicus curiae brief to the court in question; saw the decision go in favour of gun-rights activists. While it would be reasonable to suggest that upholding such legislation would potentially lower homicide rates in the USA, with enough backing; it seems most proposals can get through.
More ambiguous situations involving the Judiciary and the role of interest groups occur when it comes to appointing a Supreme Court Justice. Clearly as there are only nine justices in this, the most powerful Court in the political system, when one is appointed it can seriously affect the balance of ideology and consequently the voting. Therefore it seems only logical that interest groups will try their hardest to ensure that Justices are appointed that are likely to benefit their members and their own interests.
Of course they are just as likely to try and prevent a Justice getting appointed whose views oppose those of the interest group. An example of this occurred in 1987 when right-wing judge Robert Bork was nominated for a Supreme Court Justice position, and was attacked by critics who viewed him as ultra-conservative, including Democrat senators and interest groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the People For The American Way. The latter, a group set up to challenge the Christian Right, initiated a $2 million media campaign claiming that the nomination would be damaging to the American people.
Many believe Political Action Committees (PAC’s) are the problem, these are organisations that are formed for the purpose of raising and distributing funds so as to elect candidates (usually representing business, labour and ideological interests). What could be more corrupt than the buying of candidates by using political blackmail? “If elected, it is said, they are beholden to the PAC’s that have financed them” (Ashbee 2004 p267). The problem doesn’t end here however, as the policy making process can be distorted from their impact. In 1990 there were over eighty PAC’s supporting the state of Israel, giving financial support to almost all members of Congress (and $1.2 million to those on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee), this clearly distorts the true position of some Congressmen, and therefore tilts US foreign policy in the Middle East (Ashbee 2004).
Limits have been put on PAC’s but interest groups find no problem in side-stepping them. For direct contributions to candidates, PACs are limited, but PACs may also give to congressional leadership PACs, who in turn may donate to other candidates (143 leadership PACs made such contributions in 2000). The use of ‘soft money’ means that billions of dollars continue to be spent through political action committees, and the situation doesn’t seem to have a simple solution.
Of course many in the political sphere are aware of the problem of spiralling campaign funds, and so limits have been put on interest groups to try and cap the amount of money being spent. However the restrictions are questionable, as there are clear loopholes in the system. “Campaign finance laws do not limit expenditure, do not limit donations, do not limit the extent to which the very rich may finance their own political ambitions, and do not restrict the overall costs of publicly funded presidential campaigns” (Davies 1995).
Until legislation in July 2000, there were no limits or need for disclosure as to where the money came from when ‘issue advocacy’ was used (groups with assets in non-interest-bearing accounts were exempt from reporting anything about their organizations). Issue advocacy was used in the presidential primaries in May 2000 when a group known as the Republicans for Clean Air ran a $2.5 million advertising campaign attacking Arizona Senator John McCain. The senator blamed Bush for funding the operation but it was later revealed that it was financed by Texas businessman Sam Wyly. No doubt other large donors contribute to issue advocacy groups, but because of the lack of disclosure, it is not clear who they are.
It is clear that interest groups hold a major role in American politics, and it is often under-estimated just how influential some of these groups really are. Often groups can donate so much to Congressmen that they have a strong-hold on their particular policy area. Lowi and Ginsberg talk of ‘iron triangles’ within the political process – interest groups collaborating with committees in Congress to create policies that benefit these organizations and their members.
This domination of a policy area is said to be used in all different fields within Congress and doesn’t just refer to the creation of new legislation – often new policies are blocked so as to protect existing policies ‘within these triangles’, subsequently furthering the interest groups cause. The fact is that these relationships can be so rigid and because of the vast collective knowledge in a particular area, control of an entire category of legislation occurs, these individuals “dominate the development of policy in a given field. Policymaking is consensual, with quiet bargaining producing agreements among affected parties. Partisan politics does little to disturb these relatively autonomous and stable arrangements” (Berry 1997).
An example which Lowi and Ginsberg talk of is the Senate Armed Services Committee, the House National Security Committee and large interest groups (contractors such as Boeing, ) co-existing to ensure “defence expenditure is maintained at high levels” (Lowi and Ginsberg 2002). When we talk of the bearing which interest groups can have over the politics of the United States it is often assumed that they only have power with lesser issues that will not impact upon the whole country. It is perhaps most worrying then, that interest groups can control areas such as National Defence and continue to spend funds regardless of public opinion.
It is not surprising that interest groups play such an important role in the political process, key decision makers are numerous and these varying ‘access points’ benefit the interest groups and their members. Not only are there the three branches of the federal government but there are the thousands of local governments, civil servants, committees and potential congressmen, all of whom have the ability to influence. The public play an important role and the interest groups continually keep their members (and the general public informed). ‘Score-cards’ are created by interest groups on each congressman, as a consequence, those members who receive these cards can quickly see voting history and which officials are for the cause.
The Christian Coalition posted 70 million ‘voter guides’ to the public and this although expensive, is an excellent way to try and influence public opinion by guiding the voters. How much spending power an interest group has is not the only measure of political success – the number of members is important but only comparatively with other groups in that area. Organizational factors are crucial, so if a group is not united or has leadership problems it is not likely to dominate, also the level of prestige and status, groups like the Sierra Club have been in existence since the 19th Century and so have significant power in environmental protection policy.
Other ways which can determine how effectively a group can gain from the system is there is the drive of the interest group. If there is not sufficient levels of motivation it can have an adverse affect. An example of how this can damage the political process is by considering that consumer groups may not be able to mobilize that effectively as their members may not feel as strongly (they are not out to seek increased profits), unlike retail groups who may wish to influence policy in their favour, and have a foot-hold on a policy area.
The role of interest groups is central to the political process in America, not only do they demonstrate the variety of pursuits in this vast country, but they get the disenchanted voting public involved (be it on single issues or not) in politics. However it is clear that with the huge clout that these groups exercise, changing the system to remove exchange of money for policy is going to prove near impossible. Efforts to reform the campaign finance predicament have been made, but with limited progress, indeed every change in the campaign finance law over the past thirty years has made the system worse (Brinkley 1997).
More recently, rare conformity has taken place in Congress; all believe that 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act hasn’t worked, because of loopholes in the law. I believe the situation is dismal, and that with the continuing pressure which interest groups can readily apply, they will continue to the spoil the political process. Those who have been given the power to legislate and execute policy are constrained by groups led by greedy, unelected individuals who more often than not, look out for their own interests, rather than that of the public and of the political system that gave them such power in the first place.
Davies, (1995) An American Quarter Century
Heidenheimer, (1970) Political Corruption: Readings in Comparative Analysis
Lowi and Ginsberg, (2000) American government : freedom and power 6th edition
Lowi and Ginsberg, (2002) American government : freedom and power 7th edition
Johnston (1982) Political Corruption and Public Policy in America
Williams, (1998) Political scandals in the USA
Berry, (1997) The Interest Group Society, 3rd Edition
Berry, (1989) The Interest Group Society, 2nd edition
Brinkley et al (1997) The New Federalist Papers
Peele et al (2002) Developments in American politics 4