Iron Triangles

An iron triangle is a political community featuring three very powerful players in the political process. When pressure groups, congressional committees and the federal bureaucracy have shared aims, they can develop a very strong relationship. This gives them an iron grip on public policy, enabling them to effectively dictate and block attempts by Congress or the president for reform. Perhaps the most criticised iron triangle has been the military industrial complex (MIC), the strong relationship between the Defense Department, the congressional armed forces committees and the leading weapons manufacturers, which some argue has contributed to the USA's huge defence budgets. The following case serves as an example:

·      Attempts to save $2.5 billion from the defence budget in 2012, by cancelling contracts for a drone programme provided by the defence manufacturer Northrop Grumman, were thwarted by the company's lobbying activities. Its 26 lobbyists, packed with former congressional staff, successfully blocked the cancellation bychannelling over half a million dollars to members of the House Armed Services committee in the 2012 election cycle. In addition to this it came to light that they had provided $113,000 since 2009 to its chairman, Buck McKeon, who wrote an influential letter to the newly appointed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in 2013 reminding him of the commitment to continue funding the drone programme

military industrial complex 

Eisenhower's final speech as president 1960

Some critics have argued that the inability to significantly trim defence budgets proves the influence that interest groups from the defence sector have over Congress. Many borrow a phrase from President Eisenhower, who warned the American people, in his farewell address in 1961, that they must be vigilant to prevent a growing ‘military-industrial complex’ from emerging. As a five star general during World War II, Eisenhower had seen a great transformation in both the US military and the defence industry. He was concerned that as the defence industry grew, it would accumulate great influence over politicians, who would in turn allocate greater funds for defence spending and lead the country into more armed conflicts. 

The iron triangle is linked with the revolving-door syndrome. A Pentagon general might, after the lawful waiting period, end up as a lobbyist for a missile manufacturer. Similarly, a former staff member from the Senate Armed Services Committee might get a job lobbying for a defence contractor. 

Many critics have built upon Eisenhower’s ‘military-industrial complex’, and now talk about ‘iron triangles’. The iron triangle theory is that significant and expensive projects are more likely to succeed if they have the support of three groups – firstly a government department or agency that wants the project, secondly an interest group such as a business that wants to profit from providing the essential goods or services and, finally, a member of Congress who stands to benefit electorally from the deal. For example, the Republican Representative Buck McKeon has been one of the largest recipients of donations from defence lobbying, but this is unsurprising when considering his position as the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. McKeon received over $1.4 million from the defence sector between 1992 and 2013.ii The largest contributor to McKeon is a company called Lockheed Martin, which is one of the world’s largest defence contractors and also happens to have a plant in McKeon’s Congressional district. 

The Honest Leadership and Open Government Act (2007) aimed to limit the revolving door in Washington D.C. by increasing the ‘cooling off period’, which temporarily prevents public servants from lobbying their former colleagues after they have left government. The period was increased from one year to two years for Senators, Cabinet Secretaries and other senior executive officials, and the law retained the one-year period for House members, officers and staff. However, there is no such ‘cooling off period’ for lobbyists hired into government to work on issues they were recently hired to lobby on. 

In 2015 the senior policy advisor for Democratic Senator, and member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Joe Manchin (Virginia), previously worked as a lobbyist for Xcel Energy, which runs thirteen coal power plants.

(From Congress Incorporated The Nation 2015) 

In 2019, 51 members of Congress or their spouses owned a combined total of $2.3–$5.8 million worth of shares in defence companies, meaning that they profited directly if defence contracts were awarded to them. This included almost one-third of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, which is responsible for deciding how much funding is given to the US Department of Defense to spend on defence contractors.

Example: Joe Courtney, the Democrat congressman for Connecticut’s second district is chair of the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, which oversees naval and Marine Corps contracts. Defence contractors were the biggest contributors to Courtney’s 2019–20 fundraising, with donations from multiple companies including Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics and Raytheon. Courtney earned the nickname ‘two subs Joe’ for helping to secure funding for the construction of two submarines a year in his district.

Agency Capture also called Regulatory capture

A close relationship between regulatory agencies and the pressure groups that they are supposed to be overseeing can mean that government watchdog agencies often turn into lapdogs. This has been a recent criticism laid at the door of the financial and energy regulatory bodies, in the wake of the recent banking crisis and the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster. This is evidenced by the following:

·    A Securities and Exchange Commission report in March 2008 pointed towards its own failures in regulating the financial sector with a system which allowed banks to 'opt in or out of supervision voluntarily'. Many blamed the heavy lobbying from all five big investment banks in 2004 for this voluntary system.

·    The 2010 Interior Department review into the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster found that it resulted from the failed regulation of those who were supposed to be policing the nation's offshore drilling facilities.

US government employees often find themselves in a peculiar situation which involves monitoring, regulating, and even disciplining the behaviour of firms whom they hope to later work for. In the pharmaceutical industry, for example, the safety of a new drug may be determined by a Food and Drug Administration employee who soon after joins the firm that developed it. In financial services, the penalty for fraud may be determined by a Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) employee who is subsequently hired by the bank that perpetrated it. These cases pose clear conflicts of interest, but they are hardly unique. Workers move so frequently between agency and industry positions that they are said to pass through ‘revolving doors’ as they move from public- to private-sector roles.  

The existence of these iron triangles raises the question of whether pressure group activities are compatible with a pluralist society. A pluralist society is one in which political resources such as money, expertise and access to both government and the mass media are spread widely and are in the hands of many diverse individuals and groups. In contrast, many see pressure groups as fostering an elitist view of society in which the aforementioned political resources are in the hands, not of the many, but of the few.