Fast Facts: Interest Groups and Political Lobbies
Featured Image: Law professor Lawrence Lessig interviews former lobbyist Jack Abramhoff. Credit: Madeleine Ball.
- Groups interested in influencing politics can include everyone from parents speaking at a town hall, to multinational corporations on Capitol Hill. From the Union of Concerned Scientists to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, to Freedom Works and Autism Speaks, the scale and scope of advocacy is vast.
- The word ‘lobby’ comes from one of the actual lobbies of the UK House of Commons where the public could go to speak with their members. The term was used as far back as 1640.
- Interest groups target other government branches as well as lawmakers. Lawsuits by the NAACP and ACLU have led courts to declare laws unconstitutional. Executive agencies like the EPA get input from those affected by their regulations, and so they alter how legislation is executed on the ground.
- Advocates also testify at Congressional committees, help write legislation for congressmen to consider or amend, and file “friend-of-the-court” briefs, which offer their expertise in court battles of interest.
- Trade associations, churches and labor unions also participate in advocacy. When French historian Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in 1831, he was famously amazed by Americans’ ability to join each other and collectively act: “Americans of all ages, all stations of life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations… Where in France you would find the government, or in England some territorial magnate, in the United States you are sure to find an association.”
- The growth of civil society groups – which go between the individual and the state – is pivotal in transitioning from autocracy to democracy. This is based on Tocqueville’s idea that participation in groups grows trust and citizens’ readiness to work together.
- Some believe these more grassroots type of associations have declined in the U.S.
- Several factors are key if advocacy is to work. They include the size and number of groups in a policy area, as well as their degree of cooperation, the simplicity of the issue (complex issues discourage people), and public prominence of the issue. Access to policymakers is also a biggie.
- Media reports often show the influence of monied lobbies to be substantial. On the other hand, an in-depth 2009 study suggests it’s real but limited. It remains to be seen how increased secrecy and fewer campaign contribution limits will change political advocacy.
- Foreign governments are allowed to lobby the U.S Government. The Cayman Islands is one of the biggest spenders.
- An “advocacy explosion” occurred around 1960 as the number of lobbying groups surged. Total spending on Washington lobbying grew from $100 million in 1975 to more than $2.5 billion in 2006.
- The top five U.S. lobbies by spending (1998-2013) are:
- U.S Chamber of Commerce $1,066,810,680
- American Medical Association $306,077,500
- General Electric $301,650,000
- National Association of Realtors $265,549,856
- National Hospital Association $259,177,661
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