A paper I wrote for a Political Science
class in 1998
Previously published: (c) 2002 Martin Kretzmann
Since the 1950's, interest groups in the United States have changed their methods of exerting political pressure and influence on the Congress. They have shifted to a system that requires rather large expenditures of money in order to lobby, and to a system that artificially manufactures grass roots movements. The business interests are the ones who are best able to navigate this expensive arena. Furthermore, these changes have led to a system in which it is quite difficult to monitor and control the influence of these pressure groups. I will discuss these changes and problems and propose several reforms that may help to level the playing field for groups without the financial ability to compete in this new face of lobbying.
The pressure group politics of the 1950's was, as nowadays, dominated by business, i.e., business had a disproportionate amount of resources and influence. What differentiates this system from the system of today is that business today has an even more disproportionate amount of representation in Washington. Though the actual numbers of groups such as unions and trade organizations has grown, the relative representation of such groups has fallen dramatically since this time (Schlozman 241).
Recently, business interests have moved toward a new brand of pressure group politics. Their new methods include mobilizing support that appears to be a grass roots movement, but is in reality a manufactured grass roots movement, hiring law firms that specialize in lobbying, and hiring former bureaucrats. One example of a manufactured grass roots movement is if a business were to call thousands of constituents and ask them to speak with their representative about an issue. When their representative receives fifty calls, s/he will be quite impressed; what s/he does not know however is that there were 950 people who said no (Mitchell). This type of business organized swell did not exist in the 1950's. Former members of Congress and bureaucrats are now also taking part in this power and money business. Some former bureaucrats have even left their jobs in order to become lobbyists commanding million-dollar salaries (Abramson). These changes have increased considerably the costs associated with lobbying, and therefore severely restricted the ability of organizations with limited financial resources to adequately promote their views. This is illustrated by the fact that corporations are far more likely to survive and remain in politics over long periods than other non-business organizations. In 1980, the percentage of public interest groups no longer in business or in politics was forty percent lower than in 1960, whereas the percentage of corporations in a similar situation was only eight percent. In other words, corporations not only have more resources to participate in this changing environment of power, but they also begin to dominate the system as their weaker counterparts drop out; this domination thus increases the capacity of business to influence legislation.
One result of these changes is an increasingly difficult to monitor and control system of pressure. For example, it is difficult for a Senator or House Member to know if the 500 telephone calls s/he receives are the result of a genuine grass roots movement or of a corporate initiated showing of constituent concern. Only close view of this showing of support might reveal the true nature of the attempted influence. One example of this is when a Senator notices that all the letters come from the same area and that they are from the workers at the same company (Mitchell). Several reforms, which may help to reduce the mobilization of bias on behalf of the interests of business, include 1) Impose limits on the size of a salary or fee a lobbying or law firm may receive for its services. 2) Require disclosure when the lobbying efforts have been geared toward artificially creating the appearance of a grass-roots movement. I believe these reforms would enhance the fundamental values held dear in America's liberal democracy. Because business interests do not necessarily represent those of the citizenry, the first reform would assure the public that their interests are more accurately represented. The second reform would diminish the ability of business to perhaps misrepresent or misconstrue the desires of the public, thus giving the public more assurance that their interests are not being mutated and manipulated. I believe that these reforms should be undertaken. They would not only help to reduce the disproportionate influence of corporations, but they would also help the legislature better determine the desires of the public as a whole and provide a more accurate view of the true desires of the public. The techniques employed by pressure groups have indeed undergone a transformation in the past forty years; the ability of business to influence legislation has increased as a result of this transformation and the influence of more varied interests has become much smaller. There is clearly a need for reform of this system if we are to return to a system in which the interests of the people are accurately represented.
Abramson, Jill. "The Business of Persuasion Thrives in Nation's Capital." The New York Times 29 September 1998, natl. ed. : A1.
Mitchell, Alison. "A New Form of Lobbying Puts Public Face on Private Interest." The New York Times 30 September 1998, natl. ed. : A1.
Schlozman, Kay Lehman. "What Accent the Heavenly Chorus? Political Equality and the American Pressure System." Journal of Politics 46 (1984): 1006-10032.