HGov: Interest Groups Review


Special interest groups have been one of the most criticized components of the political process. The main role of interest groups is to influence public policy and the policymakers through lobbying efforts, the formation of political action committees, and legal action. Interest groups are linkage groups that can be a public or private organization. They take on an affiliation based on specialized memberships such as unions, associations, leagues, and committees. The major function of these groups is the advocacy or opposition of specific public policies.

They can attract members from a large geographic area. The only criterion is that the people joining the group have the same interests and attitudes toward the goals of the organization. The nature of group membership is not representative of the population as a whole. Many groups have as their members, people with higher than average income and education levels and people who are white-collar workers. Although we can make the argument that many interest groups are elitist in nature because of the socioeconomic characteristics of their membership, the fact that there are so many competing groups that can cause gridlock in government, these groups often compete with each other in a manner consistent with pluralism.

James Madison’s view was that the development of factions was an inevitable feature of society. Although he was fearful of their potential, he did not make the argument that they should be abolished. Madison felt that the separation of powers of the three branches of government and the division of government between national and local governments would, in the end, provide enough government protection and regulation of these interests. In addition, the formation of political parties became an additional balance to the formation of private interest groups, many of which are economically based.

As interest groups have grown in number and size, they have also become specialized, representing various concerns. Majority of these groups have headquarters in Washington, D.C. and have operating budgets and staffs. Most have hired lobbyists who make contacts with senators and representatives as well as the executive branch. Many have separate political action committees with well-financed budgets. All these groups have the potential of helping the legislative process because they do help inform office holders. They also provide elected officials with a viable strategy and a base of support. These groups also have the expertise to give elected officials an additional slant to a problem.

There are very few consistent winners or losers in the attempts by special interests to control the policy agenda. What is clear is that, when the system works, compromise and bipartisanship take place. What is also evident is that when the system breaks down, gridlock occurs. Whether Madison was right in his concern about factions is debatable. They are an important part of the political process. They have major constituencies who rely on them as much as they rely on elected officials.



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