Interest Groups in the USA

Crash Course Interest Groups

The role and influence of pressure groups

 Despite the Founding Fathers' distrust of 'factions', the intricate system of checks and balances and separation of powers meant that they in fact created a system open to external influence — one that enables and positively encourages the formation of pressure groups. The constitution created a number of access points, at both state and federal levels, along with a political system that encouraged political participation and an active citizenry, in order to better hold politicians to account. As a result, America today has a wide range of pressure groups, each actively involved in the political process and attempting to influence government in order to shape policy outcomes in its own interests.

The term 'interest group' covers a multitude of different organisations in the United States with one thing in common: they are non-elected groups, with their own interest or cause, that try to influence government policy.

There are three types of interest group:

Pressure groups can be categorized as promotional groups (also known as cause groups) and interest groups. Promotional groups advocate for specific causes they believe will benefit society, driven by altruism rather than self-interest. Examples include environmental groups like Greenpeace USA, gun control groups such as Everytown for Gun Safety, and civil liberties groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). On the other hand, interest groups advocate for the interests of their members. Examples include unions like the AFL-CIO, business or trade groups like the US Chamber of Commerce, professional organizations like the American Bar Association, groups representing individuals from the same social group like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for African-Americans, and religious groups like the Christian Coalition of America. In US politics, the term 'interest group' is sometimes used to refer to large corporations that lobby the government and fund election campaigns similar to pressure groups.

The functions of pressure groups

Although there is considerable debate about the positive or negative effects of pressure groups- the argument is really about where the balance is -because pressure groups do perform some important functions in a democracy. For example


Pressure groups may perform a representative function. They are a means whereby US citizens can have their views represented and their grievances articulated. They are an important link between the public and the politician, the governed and the government. They provide a channel of easy access through which ordinary citizens can voice their opinions. For many Americans, pressure groups will be the most important way in which their strongest-held views are represented. One’s senator or representative, for example, will have many calls upon their representative roles — a great variety of constituents, their political party and the administration being three of the most important. But through a pressure group, women, African-Americans, gun owners, business people, environmentalists, Christians, farmers or retired persons can have their views represented in all three branches of government at the federal, state and local levels.

By representing a range of interests - pressure groups can set the political agenda- climate change, crime, drugs or immigration can become priorities as a result of pressure group activity. Pressure groups may perform the function of agenda building. In so doing they attempt to influence the agendas of political parties, legislators and bureaucrats to give priority to their members’ interests. They may attempt to bring together different parts of US society — for example, business groups, religious groups, state governments and professional organisations — to achieve a common interest.

Improving Accountability

Holding governments to account is difficult for ordinary people- policies are complex and their impact is not always clear.  Pressure have the time, expertise and legal experience to scrutinise and hold government to account in the implementation of policies, to try to ensure that promises are fulfilled, policies delivered and regulations enforced.  It was the ACLU that brought the first legal challenges to President Trump’s executive order placing a 90-day ban on entry into the United States from seven predominantly Muslim countries during the first weeks of his presidency.


Pressure groups attempt to educate public opinion, warning people of the possible dangers if issues are not addressed, as well as the likely effects of decisions made by the government. The consequences of climate change or the impact of immigartion policies on ordinary people.

Factors affecting the impact of interest groups


An active membership can undertake grassroots lobbying to influence their members of Congress to support or oppose certain measures. Large groups can create an electoral threat to individual politicians. Members are often used at election time to contact potential voters to affect electoral outcomes, including turnout. This often targets swing constituencies or areas where the group knows it has strong support. Example Case Study AFL-CIO


Strong financial resources allow interest groups to run more effective publicity campaigns. Many interest groups spend huge amounts of money on lobbying, which is expensive in the US. Interest groups also donate money to political campaigns.

Contacts Interest groups try to maximise their political contacts, often employing professional lobbyists who are former politicians or advisers. This creates contacts between some interest groups (especially major corporations) and politicians. A policy network develops in which at least some groups have high levels of influence. Example Pro-Israel lobbyists and donors spent more than $22m on lobbying and campaign contributions during the 2018 election cycle. The same or similar Israel-aligned groups and donors have spent hundreds of millions of dollars in recent decades, and that money poured into American politics through a variety of channels, according to the non-profit, non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics.


Most groups establish expertise in their area, so they can lobby Congress and appeal to the public with greater authority. The importance of the Constitution and the law means that interest groups often employ legal experts to advise on how laws can be changed and provide constitutional lawyers to litigate in support of their cause. Example Corporate Lobbyists write 'model bills' ie prepared draft legislation which is submitted in state and federal legislatures by cooperative law makers. USA TODAY and the Republic found at least 10,000 bills almost entirely copied from model legislation were introduced nationwide in the past eight years, before 2019 and more than 2,100 of those bills were signed into law.

The phenomenon of copycat legislation is far larger. In a separate analysis, the Center for Public Integrity identified tens of thousands of bills with identical phrases, then traced the origins of that language in dozens of those bills across the country. Model bills passed into law have made it harder for injured consumers to sue corporations. They’ve called for taxes on sugar-laden drinks. They’ve limited access to abortion and restricted the rights of protesters.

It takes considerable legal expertise to write draft legislation.

PACs and Super PACs

Case Study Professional Group AFL-CIO

Why are interest groups so significant in the USA?

There are more pressure groups, with more money, employing more lobbyists in the USA than in any other country on earth.

Why ??

The Constitution 

The constitution is at the center of US politics and the first amendment guarantees the right of citizens to petition the government. This provides pressure groups with the legal basis to influence the government 

Access Points

There are a large number of access points open to pressure groups in the US political system. The federalist nature of the US system enables groups to advance their interests to the executive and legislature at both state and federal levels. Alternatively, they can challenge decisions in the courts, organise the introduction of direct ballot initiatives or try to influence the outcome of pre-election primaries. Also Pressure Groups can access Congress at multiple points.

The USA has a huge number of pressure groups, which represent a variety of issues and interests. There are a number of reasons to account for the existence of such a plethora of groups. The main reasons are listed below.

Expanding federal government

With an expansion in the size of federal government and the degree of regulatory control over businesses, a number of groups have sprung up to advance the interests of businesses, consumers and workers alike, in order to try and shape the policy framework to their advantage. Accordingly the US Chamber of Commerce claims to represent the interests of more than 3 million businesses, while the AFL-CIO combines 57 trade union groups, representing over 12 million workers in the USA.

Increasing partisanship

The increasingly adversarial character of US politics has contributed to the growth of ideological and issue-based pressure groups. There has been a growth in the number of partisan think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, which aims to 'build a stronger, more vigorous conservative movement', or the liberal Centre for American Progress, which in contrast is committed to 'progressive ideas and actions'.

Similarly, the ideological divisions over a range of social issues have led to the creation of divergent pressure groups. Thus while NARAL Pro-choice America champions a woman's right to abortion, the National Right to Life Committee works against measures which allow abortions.


Growing distrust of government has led to the growth of public interest groups designed to improve political scrutiny, as well as issue-centred groups looking to inform the electorate about the voting records and policy positions of politicians. In this way, the Centre for Responsive Politics tracks the influence of money and lobbying activities on elections and public policy making. Likewise the League of Conservation Voters publishes a biennial 'Dirty Dozen' report of those politicians with the worst environmental track record, 11 of which were defeated in the 2012 election cycle.

Interest group tactics

The huge number of access points open to US pressure groups means that they have a range of strategies available to them. The tactics used by individual pressure groups, however, will depend on a number of factors, such as their size, the funds at their disposal and which access points are open to them at any point in time. Thus those which are larger or better funded will be able to use a greater spread of tactics to target all three branches of the federal and state government. In contrast, other groups which cannot gain insider status will be forced to adopt more direct action outside the political system, such as mass protesting and public relations stunts, to gain publicity and media coverage. Nevertheless, there are a number of main strategies open to US pressure groups to enable them to influence state and federal lawmakers and/or executives.


Given the vast number and frequency of US elections, pressure groups are presented with a range of opportunities to take part in the electoral process, in an attempt to affect the outcome or shift the policy positions of candidates. Perhaps the two key areas in this respect are through the provision of funding to candidates, either directly or indirectly, and through endorsements and 'get-out-the-vote' activities.


Funding 2016 Election

The Role of Campaign Finance  

Pressure groups raise the funds for much of the electioneering in the USA .These groups all seek to influence how voters look at the candidates, and thus indirectly shape opinions about a political candidate or party, without necessarily mentioning a specific candidate or instructing people how to vote.

The  growth of  PACs (Political Action Committees) and Super PACS  who collect and allocate money on behalf of  individuals and pressure groups who share common interests, has arisen following the introduction of electoral funding laws. They have become a means through which pressure groups can maximise their funding power..


US Interest groups, like most pressure groups in the UK, may use publicity to change public opinion, and may try to influence a voting  and public opinion — for example, by contacting potential voters who are likely to support the aims of the group.

Interest groups can run advertising campaigns through magazines, billboards or television, or can attract media attention with publicity stunts. For example, the NRA spends millions on publicity

Grassroots activism Activities undertaken by ordinary members of pressure groups, which are seen to be free of party political control. The main forms of activity are marches and demonstrations aimed at raising awareness of issues among voters and politicians. The growth of the Tea Party movement, since its birth on 15 April 2009, over criticism of President Obama's economic policies, healthcare plans and 'big government' initiatives, shows the power of grassroots movements. A well-timed demonstration, such as the 1963 March on Washington by various civil rights groups, can help put pressure on Congress, or push an issue onto the legislative agenda. Or the 1995 'Million Man March'. However, it may also be seen as a sign of pressure group weakness, or as a last resort for groups which are unable to gain insider status.

Pressure groups attempt to organise constituents to write to, telephone, e-mail or visit their member of Congress to express either support for or opposition to a certain policy. This is most likely to occur just before a high-profile committee hearing, floor debate or final passage vote. In January 2016, for example, a united cross-sector set of over 1,500 pressure groups representing, among others, organised labour and environmental groups, organised a joint letter-writing campaign urging Congress to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Grass roots activism can seem more authentic so it is manufactured by Astroturfing which is the practice of masking the sponsors of a message or organization (e.g., political, advertising, religious or public relations) to make it appear as though it originates from and is supported by grassroots participants.

Using the Judiciary

Interest groups use the legal system to promote their cause or interest because the law and the Constitution can be powerful, especially to stop certain policies or practices. The NRA have used the 2nd Amendment (the right to bear arms) Supreme Court in cases such as DC versus Heller 2008, which ruled that the 2nd amendment gives an individual a right to a gun.

Pressure groups also try to influence the nominations the president makes to the federal courts, especially those to the US Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has very significant power, for example to interpret the Constitution and declare acts of Congress unconstitutional, thereby affecting the everyday life of ordinary Americans. The American Bar Association evaluates the professional qualifications of nominees and their evaluation can play a significant role in the confirmation process conducted by the Senate.

Pressure groups can hope to influence the courts by offering amicus curiae briefings. Through these, pressure groups have an opportunity to present their views to the court in writing before oral arguments are heard. Pressure groups have used this method to great effect in recent decades, in such areas as the civil rights of racial minorities, abortion and First Amendment rights. For example:

 By presenting legal briefings to a court which is undertaking judicial review, a pressure group would hope to sway the court's decision in its favour. These briefings have increased by over 800% since the 1940s, with 98 being filed in the 2013 Fisher v Texas ruling, by pressure groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

 Litigation: Funding test cases to the Supreme Court is a way in which pressure groups can secure a ruling which is favourable to their interests. The American Foundation for Equal Rights used the courts to challenge Proposition 8, which had banned a same-sex marriage law previously passed by the California state legislature. In the landmark Hollingsworth v Perry ruling the Supreme Court effectively overturned the ballot initiative by not allowing those traditional marriage activist groups, which had placed it on the ballot in 2008, to defend it in

·  court without the support of state officials.

■ One of the most active pressure groups in the courts is the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Summary main ways interest groups can influence the legal process are:


Are interest groups good for democracy 

PACs and Super PACs 

Indirect Lobbying: Interest groups can use elections to highlight key issues, but often try to influence electoral outcomes, sometimes campaigning for or against particular candidates. One main strategy is to maximise turnout among certain voters. This has led to the creation of some interest groups specialising in affecting electoral outcomes, as can be seen in the case study of the League of Conservation Voters.

Direct Democracy

Pressure groups unable to shape the picture at a federal level, or wishing to target state governments, can use the federalist nature of the USA to achieve their aims. With 24 states currently allowing initiatives and propositions, which put proposed laws onto the ballot at election time, pressure groups are provided with a powerful way to influence the political system through direct democracy. Thus pressure groups can exert influence through using their membership and resources to:

There have been some prominent examples in recent years of pressure group success in this area, most notably over the issue of same-sex marriages and affirmative action. Examples include the following:

· EqualityMaine led the efforts to collect 85,000 signatures in order to get 'Question 1' on the ballot in the 2012 election, allowing same-sex marriage in the state. In the run-up to the vote it was reported that proponents of the initiative were raising 36 times the level of funding as opponents, with Mainers United for Marriage raising $359,000 in comparison to the $10,000 raised by Protect Marriage Maine. In the end the measure succeeded in overturning a previous initiative which banned same-sex marriage in 2009, with nearly 52% of the vote.

· In 2008 Proposition 8 was passed in California, which banned same-sex marriage. This saw over $82 million spent by various pressure groups, although interestingly those opposing the ban spent $4 million more than their opponents. There were also questions raised about the Utah-based Mormon church flooding the state with around 80-90% of the early volunteers and, according to Protect Marriage, contributing nearly half of the $39 million they raised.

However, it is worth noting that in 2010 all six of the ballot measures in Colorado failed and in 2012 the Florida Property Tax, Amendment 4, providing tax relief for homebuyers, failed despite being the most heavily advertised measure on the ballot, with Realtors groups spending $4.7 million to support it.

How insider interest groups influence the three branches and policy creation.


· Lobby the president in order to bring about policy/legislative change.

· Electioneer to change electoral outcomes and gain influence with candidates.

· Publicise issues to generate positive or negative publicity for the president and their policy.

· Super PACs are involved in raising funds and generating publicity for or against presidential (and congressional) candidates.

Although the system of checks and balances severely restricts the degree of presidential power, the president still holds a considerable amount of power, especially in setting the national legislative agenda. The president's position in moulding the legislative direction of the USA, through the annual State of the Union address and his powers of persuasion, can be used by pressure groups to achieve their aims. Similarly, pressure groups can encourage the president to use his executive orders to change the direction of policy, such as with the constant reinstatement and reversal of the 'Mexico City Policy', which bans federal funding for family planning clinics that give abortion advice. George W. Bush satisfied pro-life groups by reinstating the policy in 2001. In contrast Obama initially reversed this policy, before passing executive order 13535 in 2010, which again removed federal funding for these groups, as part of a compromise to get 'Obamacare' passed by Congress.

The Bureaucracy 

For those groups not ideologically supported by the president, there is still the opportunity to target and build relations with the relevant executive departments and regulatory bodies. Civil servants may well have long-term agendas which do not fit with the president's immediate priorities, allowing pressure groups access to try and shape policy and thwart the president's will. When this relationship involves the relevant congressional committee, an iron triangle (see link below) can develop, which holds a firm grip on policy that presidents find hard to break. Similarly, pressure groups will look to develop relations with the relevant regulatory body which is supposed to be scrutinising them. When this develops into too cosy a relationship, there can be regulatory capture, (see link below) in which the 'watchdog' becomes the 'lapdog', as the pressure group exerts influence over the regulatory body charged with regulating it. 


· Lobby congressional leaders or committee chairs especially over specific legislative requirements.

· Lobby individual members of congress, especially using constituents, to support or oppose a bill.

· Propose and introduce legislation via a member of Congress.

· Electioneer to change electoral outcomes and gain influence with candidates.

The following structures are significant:

·      Bicameral legislature: As the USA has a bicameral legislature it means that pressure groups can use both the House of Representatives and the Senate to influence and shape legislation as it passes through either chamber.

·      Divided government: The two chambers of Congress are often held by different parties, as was the case after the 2010 midterms, giving a pressure group a greater chance of at least watering down legislation it disapproves of.

·      Committee system: The power of congressional committees, as the 'gatekeepers' to legislation, provides opportunities for pressure groups to shape or block legislation before it arrives on the floor of Congress.

There are also reasons why pressure groups might choose to focus their efforts on one of the-chambers.

Lobbying the Senate

Lobbying the House