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Protected by the First Amendment of the United States constitution, interest groups and lobbyists have the right to “petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Growing from 10,300 in 1968 to 20,600 in 1988 the numbers of interest groups have been expanding steadily (Helm, 2009). With new goals and new techniques of achieving goals lobbyists and interest groups has become the main forefront into unethical way of influencing politicians. With new rules restricting lobbying practices and requiring lobbyists to register state and local governments all over have been influenced one way or another to implement new public policies or reform the ones that they have now.
An interest group is an association of individuals or organizations, usually formally organized, who are determined to encourage or prevent changes in public policy, in their favor, without trying to be elected. Attempting to influence public policy, interest groups try to influence every branch at every level of the government. Using various forms of advocating interests groups attempt to influence politicians and their decisions. They provide a bridge of communication from the citizens to the politicians. Interest groups relay information to the public via television, radio, and even billboards. Interest groups provide information on such things such as employment, prices, and many other things to the public and government. Instead of representing their members on the basis of geography, as with political groups, interests groups represent their member basis on shared attitudes.
Interest groups today can be categorized into five main categories; (1) public interests group, (2) groups in the economic sector, (3) professional groups, (4) one issue groups and (5) ideological groups (Nownew, 2006). Public interests groups share public concerns, such as pollution, consumer protection and other social issues. These groups claim to represent common democratic interests of the electorate against special lobbying interests. Mostly environmental groups and consumer organizations make up this category. Groups in the economic sector represent the capital side that are not organized centrally, but form a loose net of highly specialized industrial associations. The profession groups contain professional associations in the United States such as the American Bar Association (ABA) and the American Medical Association (AMA), who usually attempt to influence politicians on professional jobs (Kramer, 1997). One issue Groups are organizations that represent traditional forms of interest groups, which already existed before the quantitative and qualitative increase of group activity at the beginning of the 1960s, such as parliamentary system of government. Ideological Groups are often associated with extreme political currents. They rose as a reaction to the perceived moral decay of society. Issues such as abortion, homosexuality’s are on the agenda of these groups. The rise of these groups initiated the formation of counter-organizations. Between the five main categories of interest group they all share common similarities which can affect the success of an interest group.
As many might know not all interest groups are successful in achieving their goals. There are many factors that affect the success of interests group including, but not limited to, the size of the group, the groups intensity, and the group’s financial resources. Small groups actually have organizational advantages over large groups. Interests groups vary in size depending on what type of people they are composed of (Stern, 2009). A potential group is composed of all people who might be group members because they share some common interest. An actual group is composed of those in the potential group who choose to join. Groups vary enormously in the degree to which they enroll their potential membership.
A collective good is something of value (such as clean air or a higher minimum wage) that cannot be withheld from a potential group member (Adams, 2007). Members of the potential group share benefits that members of the actual group work to secure. A problem that occurs when potential members decide to join but sit back and let other people do the work is called the free-rider problem (Cummings, 2001). According to Olson’s law of large groups, the bigger the group, the more serious the free-rider problem.
The primary way for large potential groups to overcome Olson’s law is to provide attractive benefits for only those who join the organization (Nownew, 2006). Selective benefits are goods that a group can restrict to those who pay their yearly dues, such as information publications, travel discounts, and group insurance rates. One way a large potential group may be mobilized is through an issue that people feel intensely about, such as abortion. Both small and large groups enjoy a psychological advantage when intensity is involved. Politicians are more likely to listen when a group shows that it cares deeply about an issue, and many votes may be won or lost on a single issue.
While fighting and constantly battling issues such as healthcare and employment many citizens rather confuse the works of political parties with interests groups. Interest groups differ from political parties in which they nominate for candidacy. Unlike political parties who nominate candidates, interest groups cannot participate in nominating or electing candidates. If interest groups nominate candidates they would then be considered a political party and not an interest group. Another difference is the main primary focus of political parties. Political parties are interested in winning the election for their candidate so they can get into office where interest groups are more interested in controlling or influencing the policies that the government creates. Last but not least political parties also differ in the scope of their interests. Political parties are concerned about the issues that affect the public as a whole because they want to create change be elected into office (Helm, 2009). This is the exact opposite of what interest groups are concerned about. Interest groups are only concerned about the issues that affect the members of that group. The most visible and common way in which interest groups persuade and express their views to the public and politicians is by lobbying.
Lobbying is a form of advocacy with the intention of influencing decisions made by legislators and officials in the government by individuals, other legislators, constituents, or advocacy groups (Adams, 2007). A lobbyist is a person who tries to influence legislation on behalf of a special interest or a member of a lobby. Governments often define and regulate organized group lobbying which has become very influential on policy. Most lobbyists are employed by interests groups or corporations to influence policy decisions and positions in the executive and legislative branches. The term lobbyists is a job title so therefore lobbyists are just not regular citizens on the streets who try to influence legislation. There are three main criteria’s one must fit in order to be classified as a lobbyist (Kramer, 1997). First, one must be an individual who receives compensation for acting directly to affect legislation or a rule. Second, one must be registered to the state in which they lobby in and pay a registration fee. Last but not least, one must also represent a government entity for which the person serves or is employed at as a designated representative. The roles of lobbyists are not as easy as it looks. Lobbyists must convince stern politicians to vote on their side by using different methods such as persuasion, bribery, or doing favors. With the rise of periodic scandals and skeptical roles about lobbying in a democracy the Congress has enacted new rules to lobbying.
Since the ethical foundation of lobbying is the vigorous public debate for informed decision making, ethical dilemmas related to lobbying tend to arise when various behaviors by lobbyists and lawmakers undermine the fairness of that process and do not contribute to the common good. The most obviously unethical (and illegal) practice associated with lobbying is paying a policy maker to vote in a favorable way or rewarding him or her after a vote with valuable considerations (Adams, 2007). If this practice were allowed, people and organizations with money would always win at the end of the day. But even with outright gifts to lawmakers outlawed, there are subtle ways to “buy” undue influence (Cummings, 2001). Today Congress debates lobby reform that would disallow lobbyists paying for congressional travel and lavish meals. Local officials are faced with similar temptations-tickets to games or concerts, dinners in expensive restaurants, etc.
Fairness questions also arise when some lobbyists have easier access to lawmakers than others. Frequently discussed is the problem of revolving door lobbyists-those people who once served as public officials who then go into the private sector and work to influence their former colleagues. In addition to relationships with lawmakers, they may, for example, still have access codes to offices, use lawmakers’ exercise facilities, or otherwise have easier entrée to the corridors of power. Other kinds of relationships may undermine fairness. Especially on the local level, policy makers are often lobbied by people they know socially. It is incumbent upon public officials to avoid influence that might arise out of their friendships.
Documents have been proven to analyze lobbyist’s registration documents. In 2005, Public Citizen published a report entitled “The Journey from Congress to K Street”: the report analyzed hundreds of lobbyist registration documents filed in compliance with the Lobbying Disclosure Act and the Foreign Agents Registration Act among other sources (Stern, 2009). It found that since 1998, 43 percent of the 198 members of Congress who left government to join private life have registered to lobby. The Washington Post described these results as reflecting the “sea change that has occurred in lawmakers’ attitudes toward lobbying in recent years.” The report included a case study of one particularly successful lobbyist, Bob Livingston, who stepped down as Speaker-elect and resigned his seat in 1999. In the six years since his resignation, his lobbying group grew into the 12th largest non-law lobbying firm, earning nearly $40 million by the end of 2004 (Nownew, 2006). During roughly the same time period, Livingston, his wife, and his two political action committees (PACs) contributed over $500,000 to the PACs or campaign funds of various candidates. Due to problems like these Congress has made efforts into solving these major unethical issues (Cummings, 2001).
In January 2004, the U.S. Senate considered, an omnibus “ethics reform” bill (Cummings, 2001). This bill contained a provision to establish federal regulation, for the first time, of certain efforts to encourage “grassroots lobbying.” The bill said that “‘grassroots lobbying’ means the voluntary efforts of members of the general public to communicate their own views on an issue to Federal officials or to encourage other members of the general public to do the same.” This provision was opposed by a broad array of organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Right to Life Committee, and the National Rifle Association, who argued that attempts by constituents to influence their representatives are at the heart of representational democracy, and that neither such contacts nor efforts to motivate such contacts should be considered “lobbying.”
Another bill that was passed to enforce ethical ways of lobbying was Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act of 2006. According to Time Magazine article in its April 10th issue, the Senate passed legislation the first week of April 2006 to reform U.S. lobbying practices. The Senate bill (Nownew, 2006):
1. Bars lobbyists themselves from buying gifts and meals for legislators, but it leaves a big loophole: firms and organizations represented by those lobbyists may still dole out freebies;
2. Privately funded trips would still be allowed if lawmakers get prior approval from a commissioned ethics committee;
3. It would also require lobbyists to file more frequent, more detailed reports on their activities, which would be posted in public domains. The bill was approved in 2006 by a 90-8 vote.
Emphasis could not have been stressed enough on the rules and regulations of lobbyists and interests groups. In order to enforce new rules and stricter guidelines on lobbyists and interest groups the United States President Barack Obama signed two executive orders and three presidential memoranda to help ensure his administration would be a more open, transparent, and accountable government. These documents attempt to rein in the influence of lobbyists, bring increased accountability to federal spending, and limit influence of special interests; they include a lobbyist gift ban and a “revolving door” ban (Stern, 2009). In May 2009, a Recovery Act Lobbying Rules set new limits on special interest influence With new legislation attempting to control and limit lobbying there are many debates on different over whether honest lobbying creates problems (Kramer, 1997). This bring forth three important theories
The three important theories revolving around lobbyists and interest groups are pluralist theory, elite theory, and hyperpluralist theory (Hunter, 1999). The pluralist theory argues that interest group activity brings representation to all as groups compete and counterbalance one another. The elite theory argues that a few groups (mostly the wealthy) have most of the power. While the hyperpluralist theory asserts that too many groups are getting too much of what they want, resulting in a government policy that is often contradictory and lacking in direction.
According to the pluralist theory, groups win some and lose some, but no group wins or loses all the time. Pluralists do not deny that some groups are stronger than others or that competing interests do not always get an equal hearing, but they argue that lobbying is open to all and should not be regarded as a problem. No one group is likely to become too dominant, and all legitimate groups are able to affect public policy.
The elite theorists maintain that real power is held by relatively few people, key groups, and institutions. Government is run by a few big interests looking out for themselves. Interest groups are extremely unequal in power; thus majority of power held by elite’s means that pluralist theory does not accurately describe the reality of American politics.
Within hyperpluralism theory refers to the government’s excessive deference to groups. Interest group liberalism holds that virtually all pressure group demands are legitimate and that the job of the government is to advance them all. In an effort to appease every interest, government agencies proliferate, conflicting regulations expand programs multiply, and the budget skyrockets.
Interest group liberalism is promoted by the network of subgovernments (also known as iron triangles) (Hunter, 1999). These subgovernments are composed of key interest groups interested in a particular policy, the government agency in charge of administering the policy, and the members of congressional committees and subcommittees handling the policy. Relations between groups and the government become too cozy. Hard choices about national policy rarely get made as the government tries to favor all groups, leading to policy paralysis. Hyperpluralist theorists often point to the government’s contradictory tobacco-related policies as an example of interest group liberalism.
Overall the relationship between interest groups is necessary to the public policy process. By influencing the politicians and public to support their cause lobbyists and interest groups fulfill their roles by providing information to the public about concerns that affect the United States today. Covering broad topics such as ratifying the second amendment, abortion policies, health care, and employment interest groups and lobbyists seek different influencing methods to get politicians to see their point of view. In 2009 the top ten national major interest groups who are deeply involved in influencing public policies are the; American Association of Retired Persons, National Federation of Independent Business, American Israel Public Affairs Committee, National Rifle Association of America, ALF-CIO, Association of Trial Lawyers of America, Christian Coalition, National Right to Life, American Medical Association, and the US Chamber of Commerce (Stern, 2009).
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