The influence of interest groups on democracy

Are US Interest Groups good for democracy?

This topic looks at the debate surrounding the power and influence of pressure groups, and how far their activities and actions are damaging to US democracy. On the one hand, pluralists would argue that they are a sign of a healthy democracy through encouraging participation, scrutiny and engagement in the political process. However, others point towards their elitist nature, which allows a few, usually wealthy, pressure groups to dominate the system.

The first key argument is that pressure groups provide a healthy 'free market' of opinion, and give empowerment to all US citizens, who are able to use them as vehicles for influencing their political leaders. Many conservatives would point to the array of access points, which give multiple opportunities for everyone to be heard and make a contribution to shaping society.

There is strong evidence that the actions of pressure groups have in the past protected minority groups, who might be expected to be excluded from an elitist system.

Interest groups serve to increase participation. e.g The Occupy movement. The Tea Party. 1995 The Million Man March

Pressure groups ensure that national and state governments stay in touch with public opinion. e.g MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers)

Pressure groups as provide a valuable source of expertise. e.g Pew Reseach

Interest groups improve public policy and innovative policies. E.g Public Interest Groups seek to improve the quality of public services. Open Secrets. org Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), fall into this category. Perhaps best known is the League of Women Voters, which promotes simplified voting procedures and an informed electorate, and Common Cause, which backs more effective government. Common Cause is a strong critic of other interest groups for their excessive campaign contributions, and it lobbies for campaign finance reform.

The internet and social media make pressure groups more accessible and responsive.

Interest groups campaign for minorities and groups who might not have a voice in mainstream politics.The role of black civil rights groups, such as the NAACP, in securing legislative equality with the passage of the Voting Rights and the Civil Rights Acts, along with their influence in dismantling the southern system of segregation, through Brown v Board of Education, are two cases in point. Similarly, both the 2003 Lawrence v Texas ruling, funded by Lambda Legal, and the 2013 Windsor v US case, which was supported by the American Civil Liberties Union, extended the constitutional protections given to gays and lesbians in the USA. 2017 GG v Gloucester County School Board.

The USA has multiple access points which ensure a pluralist system where no interest can be excluded and all can exert influence at some level. e.g

    • At a State level: Pressure groups use Ballot initiatives- Proposition 8- 2008 banning same-sex marriage in California campaigning from religious groups and particularly the Mormons.

    • In Congress. Pressure groups can testify before Committees, lobby Senators and Representatives. Form enduring relationships with Committees and Caucuses. They can also contribute to campaign funds or independently campaign as 527 groups or PACs. Congress is bicameral and both chambers are equal in legislative power which provides more opportunities for access.

    • The executive can also be lobbied. The president and members of his administration can be directly lobbied. e.g Obama's meeting with Apple Chief Executive Jeff Cook. Or the Oil Lobby meetings with Trump's Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. Pressure groups can also form client relationships with parts of the federal bureaucracy.

Limitations and constraints

Other commentators would further point out that the system works to limit existing barriers which stop full participation. In their view, the system of regulations and constraints placed on pressure groups prevents them from becoming too powerful or dominating the system. In particular, they would point towards the following examples:

· Federal Election Campaigns Act 1974: restricted the influence of wealth by setting limits on individual donations and establishing a system of federal funding for major party candidates.

· Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act 2002: tightened the restrictions from the previous act by regulating soft money and introducing advertising restrictions. However, most of its effect was overturned in Citizens United v FEC and SpeechNow.Org v FEC

· Lobbying Disclosure Act 1995: widened the requirements for lobbyists to register their activities while also banning the giving of gifts.

· Honest Leadership and Open Government Act 2007: attempted to close the revolving door by introducing a 'cooling-off' period after leaving office, while also extending the ban on gifts and requirements for full disclosure of lobbying activities.


Case Study Glass- Steagall

The alternative view is that America is dominated by a power elite, and that efforts to try and constrain the power of pressure groups, to ensure there is a level playing field in which all groups have the same opportunities, have failed. Thus, for certain political commentators, the wide range of access points can be exploited only by those groups with the resources and wealth to take advantage of them. In this way, certain pressure groups have come to dominate, using their greater numbers or wealth to monopolise the political system. As a result, commentators contend that smaller groups are unable to exert any real political power as they do not have the wealth, voting power or insider connections to secure the ear of those in power. Evidence for this argument can be found in the influence of funding and lobbying on the political system, as well as in the existence of three main areas of controversy in the USA:

· revolving-door syndrome

· iron triangles

· regulatory capture

Controversies and criticisms

Revolving-door syndrome

A high proportion of lobbyists have come from the ranks of former politicians, or staff members — 64% of those members of the 112th Congress who failed to get re-elected in 2012 moved into the lobbying industry. This leads to the accusation that US politics is dominated by an insider elite, whose members are able to influence the political system through the 'revolving door', which gives them constant access to those in power.

Furthermore, critics also point out that this creates situations where politicians are unduly influenced, in creating public policy, by the lucrative prospect of a high-paid job for a lobbying firm when they leave politics. There are many examples of this overlap between those in politics and lobbying:

· Peter Davidson, a former adviser to then-House Majority Leader Dick Amey, and Tom Tauke, a former Republican congressman, both now work for Verizon Communications. They were instrumental in securing clearance for a multi­billion-dollar deal with cable companies in 2012, following a Department of Justice

* investigation into the monopoly status this would create.

· Senator Jim DeMint left his South Carolina Senate post in 2013 to take up a role as the president of the influential Heritage Foundation.

· John Ashcroft, who served 6 years in the Senate and 4 years as the US Attorney General, set up the Ashcroft Group upon leaving office. In 2005, less than a month after collecting $220,000 from Oracle Corporation, John Ashcroft used his contacts to secure a multibillion-dollar acquisition contract for Oracle with the Department of Justice.

Iron triangle

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:

channelling 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.

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.