The relationship between the US government and Interest groups: detrimental to a fair democratic election?

October 10, 2012 2:23 pm

With the campaigning for the next US Election in full swing it is interesting to look at the support and the power force behind elections which are often interest groups.
There are many factors and resources which can contribute to the levels of success. Groups without these resources are more likely to push for smaller aims, one step at a time. Generally speaking though, success is normally either protecting or influencing government decisions to suit the group’s aims. Essentially, interest groups with large resources are having a huge impact on American politics and it is this close relationship between the two that can bring into question the democracy of US politics.
Groups, who have all the necessary backing behind them such as money, membership size and have the same principles as party in power, tend to do better. To stress the importance of the party ideology here are two examples. The first example is that NARAL spent $3, 407, 000 on five television adverts warning against Bush’s pro-life policies, yet despite this people still voted him in. Secondly is the decline in favour that the Chrisitian Coalition have felt since Obama came into power; as Obama is pro-stem cell research he lifted the ban the Bush had imposed much to the Christian Coalition’s distaste. These are both interest groups with plenty of funding and high membership numbers, yet because of the party in power neither achieved their aims. However this doesn’t necessarily mean that there wasn’t any success or that it was a complete failure.
Interest groups can be split into two different categories. Issue groups lobby on behalf of others for a broad course and Protective groups, who defend their own interests. It is important to understand the different types of pressure groups as they tend to be able to attract different resources. Perhaps this leads to different outcomes or successes? Issue groups, generally speaking, may have a large membership but find it more difficult to find funding through other means. Protective groups on the other hand can consist of business groups, trade or union groups, professional associations and state and local governments; hence they tend to have a specific membership but they also tend to be well financed. So there are a wide range of groups ranging from ‘peak associations’ such as the AFL-CIO who have a large membership and lots of funding to the Sierra Club, both of whom are viewed as successful despite of their different resources. Also because of the variety of the groups there are a variety of different aims some interest groups such as the National Governors Association and National Council of State Legislatures are mainly representative where as the NARAL are much more active in trying to make a difference. The point I’m making is that with such a variety it is hard to determine what is viewed as success and the reasons for it.
Another contributing factor that may affect a groups influence is the relationship they have within an iron triangle. It is fair to note that interest groups in Iron triangles tend to be the wealthiest, most powerful and have the largest memberships; this in itself suggests what the necessary factors for success are. Interest groups who tick these three boxes are often companies who can threaten to leave and produce their product in another country; they tend to be referred to as ‘economic leavers’. By threatening this, they put pressure on the Congressional Committee and the Federal Department as the Committee start to worry about how the loss of jobs is going to affect the electorates voting and the Federal Department tend to worry about budget cuts. Paul. E. Peterson and Mark Rom made an observation about ‘Impact aid’, a system that gives financial aid to education where large concentrations of military personnel are living. It has now being extended to the children of federal employees. This system shows the strength of iron triangles because regardless of the problems that have been brought up every president, since this started in the aftermath of WW2, has agreed to a renewal of the programme. This shows that a strong iron triangle can even control the decisions of a president. For interest groups this is evidently significant because in a pressure group the three have to work together; this often forms such a strong working relationship it becomes impossible to refuse what they want.
A modern theoretical example is Obama’s healthcare reforms. Technically speaking interest groups have put pressure on Obama getting his reforms passed through congress especially when the pressure group is an individual drug company (apparently the second largest amount of money is spent on lobbying about health issues every year). At the moment there is a very strong iron triangle controlling America’s defense policies. In fact Theodore Lowi and Ben Ginsberg have commented that ‘defense spending is so high in Americas and it is partly because of iron triangles’. In this instance iron triangles form because Congressional Committees such as the senate armed Forces Committee and the House National Security Committee give out contracts for the manufacturing of weapons. As expected weapon production companies such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin and McDonnell Douglas all have to lobby for the contract; in all of this the Department for Defense aims to keep the budget as high as possible.
Through examining these iron triangle relationships it does seem that it tends to be protective groups who mange to form an iron triangle. From this we can assume that they have better funding, larger memberships and more influence within government. As a consequence of this it has an unfortunate tendency to result in pork barreling; where policy is made for the benefit of the minority instead of the majority, which should be what the committees and departments insure. Taking all information about iron triangles into consideration it seems that protective interest groups are very good at ensuring their aim relates to or directly affects the aims of the committee and department they target, which seems to result in success for them. Though these groups evidently required funding and membership to make the targeting of the committees possible it seems these factors enabled them rather than lead to their success. You would argue that it is a case of tactics that results in success when dealing in iron triangles.
Amicus Curiae Briefs are another way in which interest groups can influence decisions. Here it seems that both protective groups and issue groups are able to use this as a method to help their cause, as long as they have enough money and expertise in law. Amicus curiae briefs is a legal Latin phrase which means ‘friend of the court’ and refers to someone who offers information to assist the court. Generally speaking amicus curiae briefs are seen as a last port of call when lobbying Congress and the Government has failed, this is because the Supreme Court has power to override decisions made by both as it has the power to ‘strike’ a law. As a modern-day example HELA took Washington .D.C government to court over restriction of owning fire arms, where NRA presented the Amicus Curiae Brief stating it went against the people’s constitutional rights so the Supreme Court struck the law down. Another example is the Supreme Court ruling in favour of prisoners of Guantanamo Bay after ACLU represented an amicus curiae brief stating their rights under the Bill of Rights act. During the 60’s and 70’s the NACCP filed dozens of amicus curiae briefs. However it does seem to be the case that this process favours those with the appropriate resources, which does suggest money has an input on the levels of pressure group success. Yet it is important to remember that not all pressure groups seek to change or influence the law therefore this may not be relevant for some.
Another process which occurs between politicians and interest groups is the Revolving Door. The Revolving Door describes the interchangeable role between lobbyist and politician, to highlight how often this happens 10 out of the 34 former Bush secretaries are now working as Lobbyists. This relationship has benefits which are twofold. One is that politicians looking for a job as a lobbyist, when their time in government has finished, are more likely to be helpful when requests are made by lobbyists from the big companies such as Alston and Bird. Second, lobbyists from these big companies know they are more likely to be successful. Of course within this Revolving Door Syndrome there is a fine line between what is legally allowed and what is seen as corruption and bribery, some one who crossed this line was Jack Abramoff. It also prompted Nikos Passos to coin the phrase ‘deferred bribery’. In relation to interest groups it seems that those who have gone through the Revolving Door are worthwhile assets to them as they have inside information, expertise and knowledge in that area. An example of such a person is Bob Dole. He was the senate majority leader and stood against Clinton for presidential elections, after this he joined Alston and Bird and lobbied on behalf of the Taiwan and Indonesian government for American support earning millions. From this it seems that money and power have had a huge influence on the interest groups successes. This is because it seems to be the big groups with lots of money that can hire these people with the inside experiences to lobby for them, or indeed they belong to large powerful law firms through whom people pay them large amounts to lobby for them. However though this is an obvious advantage it does not necessarily result in success. An example of this is George Mitchell, who was an ambassador for the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland then became a lobbyist for the law firm ‘Verneer, Lipfert, Bernhard, McPherson’ and lobbied congress on behalf of tobacco companies yet regardless smoking in public places has still being banned in the majority of states. He has now gone through the revolving door again and is Obama’s middle-eastern envoy. I think this examples tresses the importance that the government’s ideology is similar to the interests groups as it appears apparent without this there is little chance they are going to have much effect.
In conclusion there is no one determining factor that will definitely result in success. Owing to this it is fair to say that there has to be a number of factors in the groups favour in order for there to be any success. Many have said that economic resources are the main contributing factor towards success but whilst it may explain the power of groups such as the NRA some would strongly disagree with this point. It seem right to point out that economic resources count for nothing without a relationship within in an iron triangle and even then it is normally easier and more likely if the government shares their aim or views. Of course there are exceptions to this like when in 2001 when the Bush government was found to be breaking the law. However examples like when despite all the lobbying smoking in public places was still banned and how the Christian Coalition have little influence now that Obama is in power show that agreement with party ideology is key. Also I have not mentioned the effectiveness of civil disobedience, especially shown by the NACCP who have little money and power. This shows that there are many factors that can contribute and effect a group’s success and success is more likely when these factors work together. However this close link to US government has surely become concerning and should be something that people should remain aware of in the run up to this next election. It will be interesting to review this election in a couple of months time and see exactly where the money behind the campaigns came from and the subsequent power these groups will hold come the following years.

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