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Are interest groups useful or harmful?
Interest groups, also referred to as: special interests, pressure groups, organized interests, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), political groups, lobby groups and public interest groups, are organized collections of people or organizations whose goal is to influence public policy (511). ‘Interest groups’ is a term that encompasses a variety of organized groups including public interest groups, business and economic groups, governmental unites, and political action committees(512). Through lobbying, interest groups prove useful in increasing public awareness about important issues, helping to frame the public agenda, and monitor programs to guarantee effective implementation. Interest groups exist for nearly every type of person who is willing to work together with others who share their goals. Interest groups that define themselves as ‘public interest groups’ seek a collective good, the achievement of which will not selectively and materially benefit the membership or activists of the organization(512). Today we see examples of this in civil liberties groups, environmental groups, and groups that speak for those who cannot (children, the mentally ill, or animals (512). ‘Economic interest groups’ have the goal of promoting the economic interest of their members, for example, trade and professional groups (513). ‘Governmental units’ are the state and local governments that lobby the federal government to make decisions in their favor. Mostly, these state and local governments are lobbying to attain ‘earmarks’ or funding from the federal budget that an appropriations bill designates for specific projects within a state or congressional district (513). In 1974, after amendments to the Federal Election Campaign Act, it became legal for these interest groups to form political action committees (PACs), or officially registered fund raising organization that represents interest groups in the political process. Unlike interest groups, PACs do not have formal members; they simply have contributors who seek to influence public policy by electing legislators sympathetic to their aims. By having so many different kinds of interest groups and PACs, we see that everyone’s opinion comes into consideration politically. Although members of interest groups do not run candidates for office, they become politically active when their members believe that a government policy threatens or affects the group’s goals. Lobbying is quintessential of interest groups. The term lobbying is used to describe the activities of a group or organization that seek to persuade political leaders to support the group’s decision (521).
When interest groups become active politically, they use the technique lobbying to make their interests heard and understood by those who are in a position to influence or cause change in governmental policies, usually by testifying at hearings or contacting legislators directly(521). Interest groups often lobby congress by making a congressional testimony on behalf of the group, writing letters from interested constitutes and making campaign contributions. It is no surprise that some of the most effective lobbyists are former members of Congress, staff aides, and other Washington insiders. Lobbying in Congress, as in all lobbying is successful when the lobbyist has a good reputation for fair play and provides the people they are trying to persuade with accurate information (522). Interest groups can lobby one or more levels of the executive branch of government to influence policy by, again, providing accurate information and a clear sense of where the public stands(522). Interest groups also lobby the courts. When interest groups are lobbying the courts, they either use the form of ‘direct sponsorship’ or the filing of ‘amicus curiae’ briefs. Direct sponsorship is when the lobbyist provides resources to direct a case through the judicial system. If a case comes up that an interest group is interested in, but not sponsoring, they can file an ‘amicus’ brief to inform the justices of the group’s policy preferences (523). No matter who is being lobbied, most interest groups have found that they are most successful when ‘grassroots lobbying’ is put into play, where the masses are informed as to what the interest group’s goal is and there is high public awareness of the issue. In addition to lobbying, interest groups play a key role in the electoral process. Interest groups will recruit, endorse, and/ or provide financial or other support for political candidates to focus voter’s attention on candidates who advocate policies that will help achieve the interest group’s goals. Some ideological groups will go as far as to rate the candidates to provide a clear guide for their members and the general public as to how they feel about the candidate. In addition to simply endorsing the candidates of their choices, there have been many get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts. PACs are allowed to raise money to contribute directly to political candidates in national elections. Interest groups are essential during an election because they do the research on candidates for people who would normally not do so(525).
Like in any type of group, there have been some cases of corruption among interest groups. In 2006, Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to corruption charges which led to the passing of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act in 2007. The act restricted and reformed a lot of the practices that had been going on. It banned gifts to members of Congress and their staffs, made extensive disclosure requirements, and increased the time limit on moving from the federal government to the private sector (529). Interest groups are essential to U.S. politics in that, through their influence, they enhance political participation by motivating like- minded individuals to work toward a common goal. When the right leaders, funding, and members interest groups can take pride when they know they have made a difference in election outcomes.