One of the driving purposes of a democratic system such as that of the United States is to fulfill the aspirations of the people. In lieu of this, principles have been ingrained in the United States' constitution to ensure that the various arms of government assume complementary roles and even act in opposition to each other on occasion to prevent vested interests from profiting at the peoples’ expenses. There are still, however, ways by which groups are able to manipulate the government to ensure that their agenda is furthered, even at the cost of the greater good. An example of this sort of manipulation is the concept of the iron triangle.
Iron triangles are mutually beneficial alliances formed between interest groups, congressional committees and federal agencies that are formed to shape public policy to the participants’ advantage. While federal agencies can be hampered in their work by lawmakers and interest groups, they can also be aided by them whenever the trio shares a common interest on a certain issue. The issues that concern them are usually very specific- for example, serving the interests of the tobacco industry- rather than being concerned with something of a more global nature. These triangles benefit the participants because the interest groups are able to push their agenda through congressmen (who help pass bills into law) and the federal agencies (who enforce policies once they are brought into law), congressmen are helped by the interest groups in election campaigns and in drafting legislation and federal agencies are helped by congressmen through interest groups in approving funds and legislation beneficial to them. In recent years, however, iron triangles have been on the wane since the number of interest groups has increased and there is heightened concern over government spending.
Iron triangles are definitely detrimental to the integrity of government. By acting on very specific programs, they hinder the global program of the federal government. If the President were eager, for example, to withdraw all American troops from foreign soil to cut costs then an iron triangle concerned only with the interests of a particular country would be able to throw a spoke into those plans. For example, President Reagan’s attempts to eliminate the Small Business Administration were subverted by an iron triangle in 1985.
Iron triangles also work in detriment to the public good. Since they work intensely for their own benefit, they often introduce new measures (such as laws) at a tremendous cost to the taxpayer. They completely disregard the consequences that their actions have for the people of the country. They could conceivably cause levying of heavy taxes, harm to the environment or even weaken the nation’s defenses. For example, congressmen from rural areas back farm subsidies even at great cost to taxpayers.
Iron triangles, thus, have a deeply negative effect on American government. Not only do they block the proper functioning of the government, but they also wound the aspirations of the people. However, we still have to keep in mind that iron triangles are part and parcel of the system that the framers of the constitution had devised. Perhaps they can also be looked at as natural consequences of the existence of political agendas and interest groups.
Squire, James, at al. Dynamics of Democracy. Brown & Benchmark, 1996.