What are Interest Groups?
Even though the U.S. Constitution did not provide for the
creation of political parties, they were created anyway. Americans have a history of
forming special-interest groups at all levels of government.
What do Interest Groups do?
Interest groups are similar to political parties as they try to
influence government policy. However, they differ from them in three key ways:
They do not nominate candidates
They are generally focused on specific issues
parties, interest groups do not nominate candidates for public
office. Instead, they try to influence the representatives who are in office. While an
interest group may support candidates who support their ideas, they do not nominate
Interest groups also differ from political parties by focusing
on specific issues. While political parties are broad-based and have many opinions, points
of views and ideas, interest groups have specific issues they focus on that they want
Political parties unite people in specific locations and help
elect members who represent the views of that location. Interest parties, conversely,
unite members based on their views and influence members from all geographic locations.
How do Interest Groups influence public policy?
Interest groups have a number of ways to influence public
policy. The two most popular are:
Contacting representatives in Washington, D.C. or the State
Employing the mass
media to influence public opinion
Most interest groups find it necessary to contact
representatives directly by way of lobbyists. The
term lobbyist comes from the fact that to contact representatives, the person must go to
the lobby of the Capitol Building. This is one of the most effective methods for gaining
support. Lobbying has been so successful that there are now over 6000 lobbyists in Washington, D.C. alone.
To gain support for a cause often requires making a personal
connection between lawmaker and lobbyist. Meetings can occur in the lawmaker's home or
office, or in a more personal setting such as the lawmaker's favorite restaurant or on a
golf course. In order to help the legislator understand the lobbyist's cause, the lobbyist
supplies the lawmaker with pamphlets, reports, statistics and other vital information
which can help to persuade the lawmaker.
To further convince a lawmaker to listen to a lobbyist,
sometimes money must change hands. Interest groups can be quite influential when campaign
funds are at stake. Although the lobbyist knows that a campaign contribution does not
necessarily mean that the elected lawmaker will vote in his/her favor, it at least assures
them that they have the candidates attention.
Publicity campaigns are also effective in gaining public support for special-interest group
causes. By employing the mass media, interest groups can make their cause known to a wide
variety of people. During the energy crisis of the mid 1970's for example, the American Petroleum Institute used
television advertisements to explain the high costs of gas and other fuels and what they
were doing to help solve the energy crisis.
In addition to mass media advertising, interest groups can start
letter writing campaigns. This lets the representatives know that this is an important
issue, but they also bear in mind that these letters may not always reflect the views of
the American public.
What are Political Action Committees?
Lobbying is just one way in which interest groups can influence
political candidates. Another key method of influencing political candidates is by forming
PACs. PACs provide a large
percentage of campaign funds which candidates use to get elected. Due to the enormous
amounts of money required to run for political office, money from PACs can be very
When campaign finance laws changed in the early 1970's, PAC
growth was stimulated extensively. In 1974 only 600 PACs existed. Now there are over 4000.
The major reason for PAC growth was the new laws which prohibited business organizations
and labor unions
from contributing directly to candidates. A PAC has the resources of a business
organization, but it is not barred from giving money to candidates.
PACs do not possess unlimited power however. They have been
regulated by the federal government so as to limit their power and not let them become too
influential. Under the FECA of 1971, a PAC must register with the government at least six months
before an election. In addition, PACs must follow strict
PACs can give no more than $5,000 directly to any one candidate
per election. This does not mean however that a PAC can not spend money on their campaign
indirectly. So long as the PAC does not work directly with the candidate. Recent recorded
expenditure lists reach almost $7 million. This is just a fraction of what PACs actually
In 1976, the Supreme Court ruled that any independent group
without legal ties to a candidate may give as much money as they choose. From 1974 to
1990, spending has increased from a mere $12.5 million to more than $159 million.
Why are PACs important in American political life?
Due to the fact that 98% of all members of Congress win
reelection, one might question the value of PACs. Are they effective? If they do not need
your money, why should they listen to your cause?
PACs throw money at candidates even if they do not necessarily
support their point of view. The cause for this is simple. It has been a proven fact that
having a large budget early in the campaign discourages potentially strong challengers
from entering the race. In addition, the PACs know that whoever they give money to will at
the very least grant them time in their busy schedule. This alone it would seem is enough
to keep PACs in the business of financing incumbents.