Unformatted text preview: CHAPTER 3 INTEREST GROUPS Definition An interest is something--economic, religious, ethnic, or based on almost anything--that has value and is therefore worth defending. An interest group is a private organization of individuals who have banded together because of a common cause or interest. Political interest groups are those groups that try to influence public policy to their members' advantage. Interest groups differ from political parties in several respects. The focus of parties is broad, encompassing many interests, while the focus of a group is narrow, comprising just one interest. Parties attempt to gain power by running candidates in elections while groups merely try to influence office-holders. Parties must appeal to the citizenry for support while groups may work entirely behind the scenes. Classification Classifying interest groups according to their main concerns yields six categories. The six basic types of interest groups are economic groups, spiritual groups, artisticrecreational organizations, associations of local governments, public interest groups, and ethnic groups. Interest Groups in the Political Process Who Is Organized? Organized interests are much more powerful (i.e., relevant to the policy-making process) than those that are not organized. There are three general rules of interest group formation. Economic producing groups are more likely to be organized than are consuming groups. People with more education and income are more likely to join groups than are people with less education and income. Those who join groups out of personal involvement tend to feel strongly about the issue around which the group is organized. Interest Groups in the Political Process Functions In attempting to persuade both the public and individual government officials to adopt their point of view, interest groups perform five important functions in the political process. Groups furnish information to officeholders in all branches of government. Groups politicize and inform their members and others. Groups mediate conflict within their groups. Groups engage in electioneering, especially the contribution of money to candidates, and sometimes in other interventions in the governing process. Groups help to form public opinion by disseminating information. Groups help their members to become more involved democratic citizens. Interest Groups in the Political Process Activities Interest groups enhance democratic government in many ways, such as providing information, getting people involved in politics, and contributing to debate about issues. At the same time, their efforts to skew the process of government to benefit themselves can make them a corrupting influence and deflect public policymaking into private channels. Electioneering Supporting candidates for public office is one of the most common interest group activities. The increasing influence of political action committees (PACs) is an important recent political development. A PAC is a committee formed by an organization, industry, or individual for the purpose of collecting money and then contributing that money to selected political candidates and causes. PACs concentrate the financial clout of large numbers of individuals and can, therefore, influence public policy more effectively than can a single, ordinary individual. While some states such as Maine and California limit the amount of money that PACs can contribute to state elections, in Texas these groups may give as much as they wish. Most politicians are sensitive to private, as opposed, to public interests due to the reality of electoral financing, not personal dishonesty. Interest Groups in the Political Process Activities, cont. Lobbying To lobby is to attempt to influence policy makers face-to-face. While everyone has a right to influence government officials, it is corporations and trade organizations that employ the most lobbyists. Who Are the Lobbyists? The 1,288 lobbyists registered with the Texas Ethics Commission in late 2003 are as diverse in their experience and competence as the legislators they attempt to influence, but they are generally paid much better. Citizen lobbyists, as opposed to professional lobbyists, who are willing to get organized, inform themselves, and spend time talking to politicians can have an impact on policy, such as bicyclists did in 2001. Many of the most successful lobbyists are former state legislators or executives. There are also "public interest" lobbyists who promote their conception of the common good and take home a modest salary, but due to the biases in the interest group system, most of the people who do most of the lobbying serve narrow, wealthy interests. Making direct personal contact with legislators is the best lobbying technique. Most lobbyists get on a first-name basis with each legislator they think might be sympathetic to their goals. Lobbyists try, above all others, to curry favor with the speaker of the House and the lieutenant governor. What Lobbyists Do and How They Do It Interest Groups in the Political Process Lobbying, cont. Contributions or Bribery?
Contributing money to politicians is the best way to ensure personal access to legislators. Money is contributed in a variety of ways. Interest groups spend money entertaining legislators and executive officials at parties, lunch, award ceremonies, and other events. Groups give money to politicians in the form of campaign contributions. Interest groups are eager to give money in the hope that they will be rewarded with favorable laws, rulings, and policies. Texas ranks in the top three states for the number of lobbyists representing the energy, insurance, banking, real estate, health care, and agriculture industries. The saga of Enron illustrates the point that the actions of a rich interest group wielding the power of money to gain access and influence over policymakers are typical and systematic. Although some public-oriented groups may score victories using information, persistence, and passion, the power of money means that rich interest groups will generally prevail over poor ones. The importance of interest group money raises uncomfortable questions about democracy in Texas, particularly since low legislative salaries and the absence of public campaign finance in the state heighten its influence. Interest Groups in the Political Process Lobbying, cont. Information Because of the volume of legislation and the difficulty legislators have in staying informed, information is one of the most important resources available to lobbyists. Legislators need up-to-date, accurate information. A reputation for providing solid information is one of the most important assets a lobbyist can develop. Information is also a tool to influence the bureaucracy which needs current facts and sometimes an independent means of finding them. Regulation of Lobbying Individuals have a constitutionally protected right to organize to influence the political process, however, government may regulate the manner in which citizens exercise their rights, particularly with regard to the use of money. Nevertheless, Texas makes little attempt to regulate the activities of interest groups except in the area of lobbying. The 1991 "Ethics Bill" limited the amount of food, gifts and entertainment lobbyist can provide legislators, required lobbyist to report the name of each legislator on whom they spend more than $50, and created an Ethics Commission to oversee ethics complaints. On the other hand, the 1991 law failed to require legislators to disclose outside sources of income and did not ban the use of campaign contributions for living expenses. The 2003 session of the legislature passed amendments to the ethics law which ensures that more information will be available to the public, yet the new law does little to dilute the impact of private influence on public affairs. Interest Groups in the Political Process Persuading the Public The 2003 debate on Proposition 12 is a good example of interest groups attempting to influence government policy indirectly by "educating" the public. In the Proposition 12 battle the two sides---lawyers and their allies who were pitted against doctors and their allies---spent more than $13 million for television ads and mailed flyers. The efforts of wealthy interests to create public support through public campaigns have both reassuring and troubling aspects in terms of democratic theory. Well financed propaganda campaigns increase the amount of information about public policy available to citizens. On the other hand, privately funded television campaigns reflect a one-sided viewpoint rather than the general public interest. Interest Groups in the Political Process Influencing Administrators and Co-opting Agencies Since administrators often have considerable latitude in interpreting laws, the executive branch of government may be an interest group target. As society has grown more complex, administrative agencies or bureaus have been created to regulate various private interests to protect the public. Although regulatory agencies are intended to be independent, they often become dominated by the interest they were created to control. Interest Groups in the Political Process Influencing Administrators and Co-opting Agencies, cont. Co-optation, the transition of an agency from guardian of the public interest to a defender of private interests, results from several factors. Those who serve in regulatory agencies tend to come from (and later return to) the regulated industry, that is, the revolving door. Even the best intentioned regulators may develop personal ties to people associated with the regulated interest that make it difficult to remain independent. Once needed regulations are in place, public awareness of the regulated interest declines, making it easier for the industry involved to co-opt the regulators without public scrutiny. Interest Groups in the Political Process Influencing Administrators and Co-opting Agencies, cont. The recent history of the state's relationship with the insurance industry provides an illustration of the co-optation of government regulators. Texas has regulated the insurance industry since the late 1800s, but by the late 1980s regulators were notorious for always taking the side of the insurance industry in disputes with customers. In 1991, a grand jury in Travis County warned of serious problems in the insurance industry that were abetted by "regulators who are asleep at the switch." The Legislature abolished the board in 1993 and replaced it with a single commissioner heading an agency called the Texas Department of Insurance. The fact that there was now one person regulating the insurance industry did not reduce the resources the industry could apply to lobbying and coopting the regulators. As illustrated by events during 2002-03, the process tends to be cyclical with industry dominance leading to abuses, which results in consumer demands for increased regulation, which leads to the public shifting its attention to other problems and the power of money reasserting itself to influence law and administrative decisions. Interest group power in the state has been classified as "dominant/complementary" meaning that groups are very strong but not completely dominant. Interest Groups in the Political Process Interest Groups and the Courts Because courts make policy by interpreting and applying the law, interest groups are active in the judicial arena. Groups influence the courts by making campaign contributions to judges, hiring lawyers to influence judges during legal arguments, and filing lawsuits. The NAACP provides an outstanding example of an interest group that was able to press its case in the courts after having been unsuccessful both in electoral politics and in lobbying the legislative and executive branches. The national NAACP won Brown v. Board of Education, a profoundly important national case in which segregated public schools were declared unconstitutional. In Texas, the state NAACP won a series of United States Supreme Court decisions, including Nixon v. Herndon (1927) and Smith v. Allwright (1944), which ended racial segregation in party primaries. Major Interest Groups in Texas Texans For Lawsuit Reform Business interests dominate policy making much of the time and one business group that has been particularly successful is Texans For Lawsuit Reform. TLR's contributions to candidates during the 2002 elections is an important reason that Republicans now control both houses of the legislature. TLR's alliances with other groups and its deep financial pockets were key resources in winning about everything it wanted during the 2003 legislative session. Major Interest Groups in Texas Doctors Spurred by its desire to limit damage awards on medical malpractice cases, the Texas Medical Association has turned its attention to acquiring political influence. Using smart political tactics,making large campaign contributions, lobbying their patients, and developing alliances with other interest groups and the Republican Party, the TMA arguably has become the most effective political interest group in Texas, succeeding in passing as much as 90% of its legislative agenda. Doctors have been effective in exerting influence over the courts and the governor. Major Interest Groups in Texas Lawyers Unlike most other professions, lawyers have an advantage in arguing their positions before the legislature or courts since they are addressing people who share their professional values and point of view. Because lawyers have also been generous campaign contributors, the Texas Trial Lawyers Association has traditionally been a powerful force in the Texas legislature. By the 1990s, with the decline in the strength of the Democratic Party, the growth of the power of business groups, and the election of George Bush as governor, the influence of the trial lawyers has diminished. The loss of power by the Trial Lawyers Association is reflected in major changes in the Texas tort laws passed by the 1995 legislature. The TTLA has not been able to reverse its fortunes and has effectively gone into hiding, resulting in legislation in 1997 and 2003 limiting lawsuits even more. Major Interest Groups in Texas The Christian Right The "Christian Right" is made up of groups whose purposes are to inform religious, politically conservative voters of a candidate's issue positions and to persuade them to participate more actively in local politics. In the late 1970s a number of national organizations arose to promote a return to "Christian values" in government and in society. The best known Christian Right organization today is the Christian Coalition, led by televangelist Pat Robertson. The Christian Right is opposed to abortion, gay rights, gun control, and tax policies regarded as being subversive of families and in favor of a balanced budget amendment and organized prayer in public schools. The Christian Right has had a strong impact on Texas politics and society in the 1990s due to its ability to strongly influence decisions of millions of citizens and to mobilize thousands of activists to capture control of political organizations at the grass roots. It has been particularly active in attempting to elect its favored candidates to positions on local school boards. The most dramatic flexing of the Christian Right's muscles occurred in capturing the state Republican Party machinery in 1994 and its domination of the GOP's state conventions through 2002. While still maintaining a crucial presence in the Texas Republican Party, by the late 1990s both at the national and state levels the Christian Right has clearly lost some of its prestige and organizational cohesion. Major Interest Groups in Texas The Oil and Gas Industry The oil and gas industry has a close working relationship with Texas government and is well represented by several interest groups including the Texas Oil and Gas Association (TOGA) and the Texas Independent Producers and Royalty Owners Association (TIPRO). Oil and gas groups are so influential in Texas that the state's politicians, whether liberal or conservative, are nearly unanimous in supporting the positions of the petroleum producers. Though Texas no longer dominates the world of petroleum and petroleum no longer dominates the Texas economy, the industry's contribution to the states' total gross product assure that TOGA and TIPRO will continue to be powerful interest groups. Major Interest Groups in Texas Organized Labor Because the conservative political culture that dominates southern states is hostile to labor unions, organized labor has little influence on Texas politics. In 2000, the Texas AFL-CIO had only 230,000 members making Texas only eighth in union membership, although it is the second largest state. Low worker benefit levels, bans against secondary boycotts, check-off systems for union dues, and mass picketing, and the "right-to-work" law all reflect labor's weakness in the state. Labor's lack of power was illustrated in 2003 when it was defeated in each of its three key legislative efforts. Major Interest Groups in Texas LULAC The League of United Latin American Citizens, founded in Corpus Christi in 1929 to work against discrimination against Mexican Americans, focused during its first three decades on the goal of educational equality. Privately, LULAC's program to prepare Spanish-speaking preschoolers for English-language public schools was so successful it inspired the national program Head Start. Publicly, LULAC in 1948 persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court to forbid the segregation of Mexican Americans in Texas schools. LULAC's successes continued with a suit against Texas's practice of excluding Mexican Americans from juries (1953) and a decision by the state legislature to sponsor the program to teach Latino pre-schoolers English (1959). In the 1970s, LULAC began to falter, becoming in part a victim of its own success, in part a victim of a series of financial scandals, and in part a victim of internal power struggles. After putting its finances in order, expanding and reorganizing its staff, exploring alliances with non-minority but liberal groups, and speaking out on general issues of social justice, LULAC seems to be revitalized. Major Interest Groups in Texas Teachers Teachers organizations, nationally, tend to be well-organized and active and, therefore, influential. In Texas the effectiveness of teacher participation is weakened by the state's individualist cultural and low educational funding. Texas's teachers are marked politically by disorganization and competition. Many of the state's teachers resist unionization. Those that are organized are divided among seven fiercely competitive state-wide groups and dozens of local groups. Teacher groups are a member of the Democratic Party coalition and often liberal so are fundamentally at odds with the state's current power structure. The 2003 legislature illustrates the equivocal influence of teachers' organization, in that, while they were able to prevent a variety of "kick-the-teacher" bills, teachers did take a major hit in the pocketbook in regard to health insurance. Teachers face obstacles in the Texas political environment, but they also possess important political resources. Conclusion Interest Groups and Democracy The relationship between interest groups and democracy is problematic since interest groups, although they provide people a means of influencing government beyond their one vote, often allow private interests to dominate public policy-making. This dilemma is acute in Texas because of the strength of interest groups in the state. Conclusion Moderating the Impact of Interest Groups Strong political parties force groups to work through them and engage in coalition-building. Public disclosure requirements encourage groups to rely less on behind-the-scenes maneuvering and personal contacts. Public financing of election campaigns allows candidates to distance themselves from special interest groups. In spite of minor reforms, the political system in Texas is still organized in a way that enhances interest group influence over public policy. ...
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- Fall '07
- advocacy group, political process, Advocacy