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Interest Groups

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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:

  1. They do not nominate candidates

  2. They are generally focused on specific issues

  3. Organization is based on ideals, not geographic location

Unlike political 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 candidates directly.

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 changed.

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:

  1. Contacting representatives in Washington, D.C. or the State Capital

  2. 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 influential.

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 accounting rules.

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 spend though.

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.

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