Artist: Clay Bennett
Special interest groups and lobbyists often get a bad rap. For instance, Barack Obama stopped taking donations from them when he began his run for the presidency. He says we need to prevent our law-making process from being “hijacked by lobbyists and special interests.” He blamed them and “an ethic of irresponsibility” in Washington for the financial crisis. They are, according to Obama and other leaders, a mischievous group that needs to be reigned in. Who are these people? What do they do? Are they really that bad?
Who are they?
A special interest group is an organized group of people that seeks to influence the political process. Their “special interest” is whatever value, goal, or cause they support. For example, unions, corporations, and civil rights advocates are interest groups.
A lobbyist is a person from a special interest group that talks to legislators, government officials, and other people involved in the political decision-making process.
What do they do?
Special interest groups and their lobbyists represent people who support their cause through donations, membership, and their time. Corporations represent their shareholders and the people who support their products and services by purchasing them. Without the people’s support, these groups lose their influence and cease to exist.
Are they really that bad?
As Robert J. Samuelson has said, “Lobbying is an expression of democracy. We are a collection of special interests, and one person’s special interest is another’s job or moral crusade. If people can’t organize to influence government — to muzzle or shape its powers — then democracy is dead.” Special interest groups and lobbyists are simply messengers for people who want to educate lawmakers and influence legislation.
James Madison offered some insight into this. He worried that “factions,” or special interests, would gain too much power in the new United States government. However, Madison believed that faction is a necessary part of democracy because with liberty comes faction. He said, “the causes of faction cannot be removed and that relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its effects.”
To control its effects, Madison suggested that factions be many, small, and spread across many states. Should factions become large, then republican government, especially “extensive republics” (bigger is better) would help control majority faction. The body of representation (Congress, legislatures) should be large enough but not too large. Also, the Bill of Rights helps keep majority faction from usurping the rights of minority groups. In short, the American system of government is designed to prevent special interest groups from becoming too powerful.
What to do?
Certainly, some special interest groups and lobbyists are powerful today. But, in my opinion, that is because our government has departed from the limited government of Madison’s time. As Samuelson says, “The more powerful government becomes, the more lobbying there will be.” Government, and its influence, is growing uncontrollably (think bailouts, more regulation, and higher taxes). The more money government doles out and the more it regulates, the more people want a piece of the pie and their interests protected.
According to Madison, “the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property.” So, if government stopped taking money from some citizens to give to others (e.g. welfare, Medicare, government contracts, and pork barrel projects), then lobbying would decrease substantially. People would lobby to influence basic policy decisions, but not to get money.
Rather than vilify special interest groups and lobbyists, public officials should limit the size and scope of government, which, in turn, will limit lobbying. Of course, the law should discourage bribes and corruption and encourage a high standard of conduct for lobbyists and public officials. In the end, though, the people have a right, and duty, to contact their representatives, whether as individuals or through interest groups, and representatives must decide to whom they will lend an ear.
What do you think?