1. Introduction: Interest Groups and Representation in Texas
Interest groups play a critical role in all democratic systems of government. Yet, the basic definition of an interest group - a group of individuals organized to seek public policy influence, usually though not exclusively by attempting to influence government actors - masks an enormous amount of diversity among interests and interest groups.
These groups vary considerably in every imaginable way - in age, size, sophistication, resources, tactics, policy focus, geographic focus, and ideological orientation. Some groups focus on only a single issue, while others focus on broader areas of public policy. Some groups are born and disappear over the period of a single election, while others have a long tradition of influencing elections and public policy choices. Some choose to focus not only on government, but on persuading the public or other non-governmental organizations to support their objectives.
Representative government is designed to encourage the representation of competing interests while moderating the conflict that inevitably accompanies group competition. In the classic formulation of representative government known as pluralism, competing interests balance each other by bringing resources and arguments to bear on different sides of important public policy decisions. Institutions are designed to accommodate the inevitability of diverse and competing interests, as well as the need to prevent any one group, either a numerical majority or minority, from becoming powerful enough to undermine the rights of others. Groups compete on a more or less level playing field created by the national and state constitutions as well as by laws. As a result, multiple competing interests are believed to create a stable political environment that allows those interests to be represented before the government.
The pluralist vision of politics is an ideal vision of interest group politics and political institutions. In practice, both in the United States and in Texas, interest groups do not enjoy uniform capabilities or effectiveness, despite having equal rights to attempt to influence government. Inevitably, not all Texans are represented in an equally effective fashion because groups bring different levels of resources and intensity to bear on their efforts. Supporters of Texans for Enhanced Recovery and Conservation are probably less well represented than members of the Texas Association of Business, for instance.
Institutional arrangements, such as the design of the Legislature and the laws regulating interest group activities, also shape both the capabilities of interest groups to affect policy making and the distribution of influence among groups. As the table Interest Group Influence in the States illustrates, interest groups in Texas are relatively powerful actors in the political process compared to groups in many other states.
1.1 Looking Ahead
Understanding interest groups requires assessing what these groups do and what factors affect their success. In this chapter we explore in greater detail the varying sizes, shapes and orientations of interest groups, their differential access to political and financial resources, the degree to which the behavior of the interest group system conforms to the pluralist ideal, and the impact of institutional settings on group influence and on policy making.
Such factors clearly affect the involvement and effectiveness of groups at work in almost any public policy debate. The nearly ten-year struggle over deregulation of local telephone service in Texas is a good example to keep in mind. Following the adoption of the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996, which aimed at promoting competition in both long distance and local telephone service, Texans witnessed a wide open brawl between two telecommunications titans operating in the state. From the start, Southwestern Bell and AT&T engaged in a fierce battle for influence on almost every level of politics across the Lone Star State. Ironically, despite the fierce political competition, SBC acquired ATT in a friendly takeover in 2005. The new company was named ATT.
While the two goliaths battled, consumer oriented groups concerned with rates and service delivery were hardly heard, a result of their substantially smaller financial and organizational resources. Their limited public information campaigns and grass roots lobbying efforts were lost amidst the gargantuan efforts of the telecoms.
In pursuit of their interests in protecting their current markets from competitors and opening new markets to competition, the two corporate giants spent enormous sums on state and local electoral campaigns, legislative lobbying, litigation in the courts, and public relations over a protracted period that spanned almost a decade.
The implementation of the new federal framework for the delivery of telecommunication services in Texas would affect both suppliers and consumers of that service for decades to come. The resulting efforts to shape this implementation broach many of the topics explored in this chapter.
This chapter first distinguishes among different types of interest groups, then examines interest groups' roles and functions, and finally discusses the tools and techniques they use in attempting to achieve their goals. Along the way, the chapter discusses how and why groups succeed and fail in their objectives and reviews the ways in which citizens may join in interest groups' efforts to shape politics and government.
2. Distinguishing Interest Group Types
Interest groups are most commonly distinguished by the types of interests they serve. Some attempt to serve wider public interests, while others serve narrower private interests. We adopt the conventional terms - public interest groups and special interest groups - typically used to describe these two basic types. Note that the essence of the distinction lies not so much in the characteristics of the groups themselves (e.g., membership, resources) as in the nature of their objectives.
2.1 Public Interest Groups
Public interest groups seek to achieve results that may be enjoyed by the general population. They promote policies that produce widely distributed benefits that anyone can enjoy - for example, clean air or improvements in public health. Unlike a private interest group, if a public interest group achieves its goals, the benefit to any one person tends to be quite small. Hence, public interest groups tend to rely on numerous small donations and contributions of goods and services to maintain their staffs and programs. As public interest groups have grown and proliferated, the more successful groups have imitated narrower special interest groups to the extent that they can afford to do so by utilizing specialized professional help from lawyers, consultants, marketers, and lobbyists. But in general, most public interest groups tend to have fewer resources at their disposal than special interest groups.
2.2 Private Interest Groups
Groups that seek to influence public policy for the specific and often exclusive benefit of their members or of people with similar interests are known as private interest groups, often called "special interest groups" by the media and in casual use.
We use the term "private" instead of "special" for two reasons. First, the term private points us to the nature of the objectives these groups seek to fulfill, which are policies that provide benefits targeted to specific individuals and groups. Interest groups made up of financial institutions, for example, promote policies that further their interests, like preventing legislation that might limit the fees they charge for financial services.
We also use the classification "private interest groups" because the term "special interests" has acquired a negative political connotation. Political partisans often use the term in a derogatory way to attack their opponents, regardless of party or ideology. If we're in a political race, my supporters are friends, voters, and concerned citizens; your supporters are "special interests," implying that your supporters somehow work against the (in this context, undefined) public good.
Some of the goals that private interest groups pursue may impose costs on other private groups while benefiting society as a secondary or unintended consequence. For example, when insurance companies contributed to efforts to place warning labels on cigarette packages, they were not directly concerned about public health per se. They sought to lower the cost of healthcare claims by lowering the number of cigarettes sold, threatening the sales of cigarette manufacturers. Yet insurance companies' efforts to lower their costs may have benefited public health.
So, the pursuit of private interests need not undermine the common welfare. Indeed, just as the pursuit of private economic self-interest benefits the economy as a whole, so also the pursuit of political self-interest is often thought to be a good thing for the political system overall, even if some specific policy outcomes seem undesirable.
A persistent belief in U.S. political culture, which also runs deep in Texas, holds that competition among self-interested individuals and groups is good for the health of society overall. From the founding of the United States, it has been widely argued that competition fueled by self-interest is a condition that successful democratic institutions must recognize, accommodate, and even use to produce consensus and stability. This pluralist interpretation of democratic politics reflects the perception that the process by which citizens and interest groups freely express their desires before the government is more important than specific policy decisions. It also reflects the often implicit expectation that in the long run good ideas (or policy) push out the bad as groups compete to promote their own interests.
3. Interest Groups and Political Parties
Interest groups may not seem much different from political parties. They are both organizations of individuals sharing some common attitudes and opinions, and they both seek to influence elections, government officials and public policy choices. But there are crucial differences between the two types of organizations.
Interest groups generally do not explicitly sponsor their own members as candidates for elected public office (though they often do seek to put their own members into appointed public office, particularly where economic regulation is concerned). Interest groups generally do not embrace explicit party labels that voters use as cues to identify their political orientation. However, some groups of voters may associate specific interest groups with particular parties in a more general way. Also, recent years have witnessed an increasing number of ideologically driven and public interest groups (Citizens for Tax Justice, Christian Coalition, Moveon.org, and others), whose orientation is either explicitly spelled out, or otherwise widely known. Narrowly focused private interest groups, in contrast, tend to downplay ideological labels.
Interest groups also tend to be much more narrowly focused on a specific area of public policy or social concern than are political parties. Interest groups form around specific concerns like the environment, free speech, tax reform, agricultural subsidies, free trade, school funding and labor standards, to name a few. Meanwhile, political parties tend to bring together some of these groups under one "big tent."
Interest groups compete, sometimes fiercely, within political parties. Both of the major political parties in Texas have experienced internal struggles between moderate and less centrist elements. In the 2000 general elections, many environmentalists in the Texas Democratic Party voted for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, perceiving that Al Gore was not "green enough." Likewise, conservative members of the Republican Party have actively worked against some fellow Republicans in order to steer the party in more conservative direction.
4. How Interest Groups Form - and Perform
The conditions under which interest groups form and the characteristics of particular groups shape the opportunities for effective participation by individuals in organized groups.
Examining how interest groups form is critical to understanding how ordinary citizens participate through organized groups in the political system. Our discussion of the two basic types of interest groups has already suggested some of the dynamics of interest group behavior, particularly the importance of the nature of the objectives groups are attempting to fulfill.
In this section, we examine more closely the fundamental distinctions in the kinds of benefits that groups may seek, and the relationship between the costs of political participation and the benefits that participation may deliver.
4.1 Private Goods Versus Public Goods
Economists point out that not all goods or policies produced by either the economy or the government are the same. (Note that by goods here, we simply mean anything that might satisfy a person or group's wants or needs.) There are two major types of goods: private and public.
We all intuitively understand private goods. These goods are things like a car or stereo or your paycheck. The key quality to recognize in these is that the enjoyment of that "good" can be shared with or denied to anybody you choose. They are what economists call excludible.
You drive your car wherever you want (within the law) and you decide who can ride in it. The same goes for your stereo. It's your machine, so it's your choice of music, unless you decide to let someone use it. With your paycheck you can decide to invite your friends for a hamburger and coke, or you can keep all the money for yourself. As a result of the private nature of these and other goods, you make the decision to work hard to acquire and maintain them, and you can exclude others from enjoying them, at your discretion.
Public goods on the other hand are non-excludible. The enjoyment of these goods cannot be denied to others. For instance, you may form an interest group that fights for tighter airborne emissions standards for power plants in the state of Texas. If you're successful, the benefits of the cleaner air will be enjoyed by millions of your fellow citizens.
Many goods produced in and by the political system have the quality of public goods. These include environmental protection, better highways and roads, safer neighborhoods, fire protection, and more.
The example of clean air points to one of the political implications of the distinction between private and public goods: because public goods are non-excludible, people can enjoy public goods whether or not they contribute to the cost of obtaining those goods.
So those who did nothing (or less than you did) to achieve a public good are able to enjoy the benefits of the labor of those who did contribute to the costs of achieving those goods.
Say you spent months working evenings and weekends to pitch in on the effort to persuade lawmakers to pass clean air legislation. Then suppose that legislation passed, and actually improved air quality. Even if your best friend spent evenings and weekends watching cable television and going out on the town instead of working for cleaner air, you can't exclude your pal from enjoying the clean air. You both get to breath it - that air is non-excludible, a public good.
If a cause produces only (or primarily) a public good it is generally more difficult to get people to work for it. Free riders will conclude that they may enjoy the benefits of a group's success regardless of the extent of their own efforts - so why risk bearing the costs of what might turn out to be a failed investment of resources? In the absence of any other factors, people frequently calculate that they have no incentive to bear the costs of attempting to achieve public goods.
Some groups attempt to overcome the free-rider problem by offering individual incentives - private goods - to members. For example, the American Automobile Association is primarily concerned with promoting polices that make travel by car easy and cheap. Many people, of course, use automobiles and stand to benefit from the AAA's efforts, setting up the potential for drivers to "free ride" on the AAA's efforts. This is a classic free rider problem: as millions of drivers choose to let others bear the costs of the AAA's efforts, they undermine the AAA's efforts to recruit and retain members.
The AAA responds to this organizational concern by using the same tactic that many such groups employ, offering benefits that are available only to dues-paying members. These benefits include emergency roadside assistance (e.g., towing, battery jump), free maps, and discounted auto insurance. Many people join only for these benefits, not realizing that they have joined a special interest group. Thus the AAA successfully employs a common tactic used by groups seeking to achieve public goods: in addition to the public goods they pursue, they provide supplemental private goods to members in order to maintain contributions to the group effort.
4.2 Concentrated Benefits Versus Diffuse Costs
With many policies, especially those related to taxation and spending, the benefits might be highly concentrated, with the costs of that policy widely distributed. In such cases, a small group of people may receive extensive benefits from a government program or policy. Individual members of the broader tax-paying population bearing the costs are unlikely either to notice the portion of the total cost they pay, or to find it too costly to expend time and resources fighting those costs.
A familiar example of this dynamic is the public financing of sports stadiums by county and city governments in Texas' major urban areas. Since the mid-1990s local governments in Texas have provided over $800 million in public subsidies for the construction of professional sports stadiums in Dallas, San Antonio, and Houston. Increases in local hotel and car rental taxes used to fund these subsidies ended up pitting the hospitality industry against the owners of the sports franchises.
Voters were caught in the middle. Many sports fans who wanted to support their local teams, were unperturbed by the fractional increases in the taxes they would pay. Other citizens were appalled at the prospect of handing large sums of public money over to for-profit private interests. In the end, those with the largest and most concentrated benefits at stake were able to muster better funding and organization to their political efforts.
4.3 Changes in Technology
From the mundane to the dramatic, changes in technology have forced interest groups to update the tools they use to organize their adherents, to influence other political actors, and to compete with their rivals. Technological advancements in printing, telephone communications, television, and computing, have exerted a powerful influence on the organizational capacity of interest groups. Technology has created the potential for interest groups in the modern world to reach out to their audiences in ways that groups a century ago scarcely could have imagined. It has also created new burdens for groups who must find the means to pay for the expertise and equipment the newest technology usually requires. Technological change forces organizations to integrate new tools and techniques or lose ground to competing interests.
The contemporary explosion in information and communication technology has made much political activity less labor intensive and more capital intensive. Labor intensive activities, such as holding meetings or engaging in other kinds of face-to-face contact with potential supporters, rely primarily on mobilizing human labor. Capital intensive activities require a larger share of an organization's costs to go to paying for either non-human resources, such as machinery - for example, computers, copiers, and phones - or expensive, specialized professional services - such as pollsters, media producers, and lawyers. As these brief examples suggest, interest groups engage in both labor intensive and capital intensive activities. But as politics has become more dependent on technologies as varied as cell phones, personal computers, data management software, and, of course, television, interest groups activities have become ever more capital intensive.
As the Internet has grown as a mass medium, some observers have made grand predictions about the potential of digital media such as the World Wide Web to significantly reduce the costs of political activity, offsetting some of the effects of the shift from labor-intensive to capital-intensive politics. Building and maintaining websites and blogs can be done relatively inexpensively, especially when compared to the production costs of television advertising, the dominant (and expensive) political medium. Numerous grass roots organizations have used the Web to perform many of the core functions of interest groups, including informing the public, recruiting and training members, coordinating lobbying campaigns, collecting contributions, and organizing public demonstrations. In an environment in which politics is ever more capital intensive and expensive, the Web helps groups with limited resources achieve more with less.
Some organizations attempt to aid other groups in their efforts to implement technology to increase their capacity for political activity. For examples of the different ways in which interest groups in Texas are using the World Wide Web, explore the links in the Interest Group Diversity feature.
Nevertheless, keeping up with the most sophisticated uses of digital technology costs significantly more than building and posting a simple web page. Integrating more complex applications of digital technology, such as secure websites capable of collecting contributions, requires both staff expertise and ongoing expenditures for construction and maintenance. While the Internet has created new avenues for interest group activity at relatively low cost, the application of digital technology has reversed neither the advantage enjoyed by resource-rich interest groups nor the capital intensive character of contemporary politics.
5. What Interest Groups Do
Like political parties, interest groups perform critical functions in a democratic system. In the process of attempting to influence politics and policy, interest groups
- organize individuals with similar interests
- inform the public and elected officials
- organize electoral competition
- organize government
- link the state and local political system to the national political system
The following sections explore each of these functions in greater detail.
5.1 Organizing Individuals With Similar Interests
Just as parties organize the unorganized, interest groups provide the means for people with common interests to find each other, pool their resources, and engage in collective action.
This function of interest groups points to the important distinction between interests and interest groups. There are many identifiable interests in society that are not represented or organized by a group. Organizing a group that actively supports a specific interest requires a great deal of sustained work.
Not all groups or organizations act as interest groups in the political system. A group of people that literally share an interest do not necessarily constitute a politically active interest group, even if they are organized to participate in non-political activities. Yet most groups have the inherent capacity to quickly become a political interest group - for example, if the local bowling alley was scheduled to be torn down to build a highway, or if the state considered requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets, bowlers or motorcyclists might organize for political action. (Motorcyclists have in fact mobilized support in Texas when such proposals have been raised in the Legislature. You can learn about the politically active Texas Motorcycle Rights Association at their website.) This chapter's Interest Group Diversity feature illustrates different combinations of organizational capacity and political interest that exist among organized groups in Texas.
The political activities of motorcyclists and other similar groups illustrates that individuals often come together for reasons other than politics, but subsequently engage in politics in response to changes in the political environment or as a natural extension of their core activities. Business associations may form simply as a way for people to build their network of contacts; but once formed, the membership may actively attempt to shape the state's tax policies or local development plans. Similarly, many Christian organizations originated as local congregations, but some have become quite active trying to change social and educational policies. Many motorists join the American Automobile Association (AAA) because of the organization's roadside assistance and other services. But one of this group's core activities is lobbying the federal and state governments for new and improved roads. Members may join for the services, and only subsequently become aware of related political issues and mobilize in efforts to affect policy decisions. Large corporations and labor unions are concerned chiefly with their economic interests. But they often engage in political activities intended to serve those interests.
Organized political interest groups take shape in different ways under a wide range of circumstances. As a general rule, it is easier to become an organized political interest group if you are already organized for some other purpose, though this condition does not prevent some groups from being born out of an interest in influencing politics.
5.2 Informing the Public and Elected Representatives
Organized interest groups develop considerable expertise on the political issues they seek to influence, and subsequently communicate information and analysis to the public in their efforts to shape both policy and public opinion.
While we expect interest groups to provide data and interpretations that best support their position on specific issues, we also expect competing groups to offer countervailing arguments and different viewpoints. These are ideal expectations, and if they are even roughly met, they help increase public knowledge about the issue under discussion by exposing us to competing views.
In this ideal scenario colored by pluralism, there are always two or more groups offering different views of every public policy decision or governmental action. Competing groups would have roughly equal access to the resources necessary to publicize their view, and their competing positions (as long as they are basically reasonable) would receive roughly equal public exposure. This rosy portrait of full and informed public deliberation also assumes that the public is both present and paying attention.
In practice, many governmental decisions and actions "fly under the radar." Elected officials and executive agencies make so many decisions that it is difficult for citizens to know exactly what their state government is doing. Interest groups and their representatives sometimes rely on this lack of public attention to get favorable action from the government. In a world in which groups have vastly different levels of resources at their disposal, in which the costs of doing politics are high and rising, and in which the policy agenda is ever more crowded, our ideal expectations about how interest groups behave are rarely met.
Yet whatever the imperfections of the overall system, we rely on interest groups to provide information about public policy and government decisions. As veteran lobbyist Jack Gullahorn argues in a Texas Politics interview, interest groups and their advocates are exercising a fundamental right when they participate in the legislative process as a member of an interest group or as a lobbyist. Despite the fact that the actual conditions of public discussion shaped by interest group competition don't always meet ideal expectations, interest groups nonetheless convey information both to the public and to policy makers. Over time, interest groups develop considerable expertise in the areas to which they are dedicated, and this information is incorporated into the making of policy and law. Interest groups often provide what we might call "interested expertise" - facts and analyses designed to shape opinions in a way that reflects their objectives and interpretations of issues. The political system relies on the clash of competing interests, however imperfectly or unevenly matched, to prevent policy disasters or to correct them when they do occur.
5.3 Organizing Electoral Competition
Interest groups are often deeply concerned with the outcomes of elections, and they promote their concerns, support candidates who will support their positions, and oppose candidates who disagree with them. Though interest groups usually do not explicitly label candidates as members of their group (as parties do), candidates and parties seek interest group support. Interest groups in turn inject considerable resources into campaigns, sharpening the distinctions among candidates, providing information on issues over which candidates compete for voter support, and often affecting election outcomes.
Interest groups make campaign contributions that help pay for campaign expenses such as public events and advertising. Interest groups also participate indirectly by producing voter guides and summaries of the issues designed to aid voters. Such materials are designed to increase voters' awareness of specific issues and to call attention to candidates' records on "their issues." The costs and production of these voting guides are regulated by both state and federal law and sometimes become issues in themselves - as candidates, the public, and the news media evaluate the claims interest groups make about candidates. However controversial, information distributed by interest groups has become a fixture in Texas elections.
Interest groups in Texas (and outside the state) may also buy television advertising meant to influence elections. Such spots, often called issue ads, are typically justified as "educational" and, by law, are not supposed to be coordinated with candidate campaigns. But they are usually intended to affect election outcomes by helping specific candidates, or to bring public pressure to bear on government decision makers. Interest groups also work to increase voter participation. They often encourage or even directly help people to get to the polls. They use phone banks to call voters sympathetic to their cause just before elections to remind them to vote. Some groups organize car and van pools that can be used to drive people to the polls. Another common election-day activity is to arrange care for voters' children while they vote. Throughout a campaign, from the first contribution and endorsement to getting out the vote on election day, interest groups are integral to competition for elected office.
5.4 Organizing (Sub)Government
While interest groups generally do not put their own members into elected office, they do often seek to put their members into appointed offices, where they can carry out their state responsibilities in ways which favor policies supported by the interest groups which helped them get appointed.
In Texas, the Governor is responsible for appointing the members of approximately 125 multimember boards and commissions. These boards and commissions, some with broad policy mandates, make public policy on the often narrowly defined issues around which organized interests are likely to form. Consequently, organized interests, including businesses, associations, lobbying groups, and law firms, seek policy making appointments for their representatives in these government agencies.
One typical way interest groups seek to obtain political appointments is through campaign contributions. Watchdog groups such as Texans for Public Justice monitor the extent to which organized interests gain appointments and influence on government boards and commissions, often as payback for campaign contributions to politicians who exercise influence over executive branch appointments. Representatives of organized interests and businesspeople who contribute to political campaigns frequently become appointees to boards overseeing areas of public policy related to their expertise and their interests.
Interest groups frequently concentrate their efforts on relatively small components of state and local government that have concentrated authority over areas of public policy that impact individual groups. These include specific boards, commissions, and agencies. They also include governmental organizations that have concentrated geographic responsibilities like state judicial districts and legislative seats.
This typically narrow interest group focus leads some observers to suggest that interest groups organize subgovernments within the broader state government. Subgovernments usually take the form of triangular relationships between interest groups active in some policy area and the relevant bureaucratic agency and legislative committee with jurisdiction over that area of public policy. In states like Texas where judges are elected, one might loosen this definition to include any "policy subsystem" involving at least one interest group and at least one governmental organization.
5.5 Linking the State to the National Political System
Interest groups serve as links between the state and national political systems. Some of these linkages result from the relationship between state and local chapters, and their national organization. Others result from the federal organization of the national political system, which results in local efforts to influence the composition and actions of national government.
Many national organizations attempt to set broad political objectives, then to integrate their state- and local-level affiliates in their larger strategies. State- and local-level organizations typically attempt to reconcile specific local issues and conditions within these overarching strategies. Whether it's the American Automobile Association of Texas, Texas Planned Parenthood affiliates, or the Texas State Rifle Association, such state and local chapters are part of a two-way flow of information and resources that help structure policy debates on both the national and state levels.
Despite sharing overall objectives, a national organization and its state and local affiliates frequently need to work to reconcile their different perspectives. National leaders frequently think that state and local representatives fail to see "the big picture." Local representatives, often attempting to affect policy at the local and state level as well as in the national arena, may come to feel that the national officials don't appreciate the specifics of their locality and are too far removed from events "on the ground." Such tensions within national organizations with politically active local branches create a dynamic in which interests and actions at the local level and at the national level influence each other.
Many Texas-based interest groups also participate in national politics, supporting the national parties and candidates for federal offices such as the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate, and the Presidency. This chapter's feature Texas interests go to Washington provides examples of federal contributions by Texas-based groups.
Interest groups in the state also try to affect policy by suing under federal law in the federal court system, linking state politics to other institutions of the national government. This often occurs in the area of civil rights and voting rights. For instance, redistricting plans for state legislative and congressional representation are routinely contested in the U.S. court system where federal redistricting requirements are invoked to shape state-level redistricting. Issues involving the use of race in school admissions, the rights of criminal defendants, and religion in public schools have also provoked suits in federal court by various groups under federal laws designed to affect state policies.
6. How They Do It: Interest Group Tools and Techniques
Interest groups have an array of tools and techniques at their disposal for seeking political influence. The specific tools and techniques that an interest group might utilize depend on its resources, the policies it advocates, and the context in which a group is acting. Typical interest group tools and techniques include:
- petitions and letter writing campaigns
- public demonstrations
- media campaigns
- attending public meetings
- legal action
- illegal action
This list of techniques illustrates the variety of strategic actions that interest groups may enjoy when attempting to influence public policy. Some of these techniques are narrowly tailored to directly influence government officials such as legislators, elected members of the executive branch, or members of the government bureaucracy. Other tactics aim to mobilize public opinion in favor of an interest group's objectives - often with the ultimate objective of using public opinion to pressure decisions makers. Some of these tactics may not aim at government at all, instead attempting to influence the behavior of private entities like business enterprises or even individuals.
Most interest groups - even those organized around private interests - are formed as non-profits. Groups must be aware of their tax status and engage only in activities that their federal status permits. The table Nonprofits and Politics summarizes the major federal rules that govern the activities of political organizations.
If you are a member of a group attempting to become politically active, this chapter's Getting Involved feature Organizing for Change can also help you think practically about strategy and tactics.
Lobbying involves efforts to make direct, private, face-to-face contact with public officials to explain your position on political and social issues in order to shape policymaking.
Lobbying is a necessary component of the dialogue between citizens and their public officials. All sorts of interest groups and private individuals may schedule meetings with public officials in an attempt to get policies they favor. Public interest groups as diverse as Greenpeace and the American Life League offer guidelines for effectively lobbying your public officials.
Lobbying often evokes images of slick salesmen in expensive suits competing to essentially bribe legislators and regulators to support policies that they know are contrary to the public interest. This popular negative image has some basis in fact. Private interests are free to lobby for goods that may ultimately come at public expense. Powerful, well connected lobbyists often communicate their wealthy clients' interests to lawmakers and other public officials, and in the process they explore how their clients can be of help to public officials. (A list of all individuals registered to lobby Texas state government and a list of political action committee operating in Texas can be found on the State of Texas Ethics Commission Web site.)
It is illegal in Texas as elsewhere to trade a vote on public policy for money or other benefit, in a direct quid pro quo (something for something) exchange. The 1991 Texas Ethics Law defined as a felony the receiving of campaign contributions with an agreement to act in the contributor's interest. Yet gray areas abound, and proving an explicit exchange is usually difficult.
Despite the popular images, lobbying doesn't always involve slick lobbyists and their rich clients making implicit deals with legislators. Whether you are an officially registered lobbyist or a member of some other type of interest group, lobbying is an important and powerful technique for influencing public policy decisions. Well-positioned interest groups with extensive resources inevitably are better able to hire experienced and expensive lobbyists, in greater numbers, to pursue their agendas before government. Some organizations hire a regular "in-house" lobbyist who works exclusively for their organization as a staff member. Organizations may also employ a "contract lobbyist" who is hired as an external contractor - a political "hired gun" who likely works for more than one client at a time, perhaps on a variety of issues.
Sometimes large organizations that use numerous lobbyists might display a preference for either the in-house lobbyist or the hired-gun lobbyist. Some of the most in-demand lobbyists often come from the ranks of prominent former legislators and other government officials. For instance, in the seemingly perpetual legislative maneuvering around telecommunications regulation, in 2003 AT&T hired former state senator David Sibley (R), former state representative and Railroad Commissioner Lena Guerrero (D), and former state representatives and highly regarded lobbyists Buddy Jones (D), Bill Messer (D), and Stan Schlueter (D). SBC had hired former state senators John Montford (D), Carl Parker (D), and Kent Caperton (D) - along with former state senator, U.S. representative, and Railroad Commissioner Kent Hance (R). By 2006, the phone giant's rivals in the cable sector had hired former state representative Todd Baxter (R) to lobby for their state association. (A list of all individuals registered to lobby Texas state government and a list of political action committee operating in Texas can be found on the State of Texas Ethics Commission Web site.)
The world of lobbying in Texas fascinates political observers, participants, and occasionally the public at large. It often seems that if you and I are on different sides of an issue, lobbyists that work for my cause are good actors, while the ones that work for your cause are bad actors. Former Senator Kip Averitt (R-Waco) shared his view of the legitimate roles played by lobbyists in the legislative process in an appearance in the Texas Politics Speaker Series at UT-Austin in 2006. The former Senator now operates Averitt and Associates, a public affairs and lobby firm.
Texas Politics features explore the world of Texas lobbyists by examining:
6.2 Petitions, Letter Writing, and Phone-In Campaigns
- the size of "the lobby" ... as political professionals often refer to the collection of professional lobbyists in Austin
- the range of issues most actively lobbied
- one view of the informal rules lobbyists should follow in plying their trade
Interest groups also pressure public officials by organizing petition drives, letter writing and email campaigns, and phone-in efforts. A demonstration that significant numbers of voters are on your side impresses elected officials. Indeed, many public officials, especially those who are elected, are happy to support positions that seemingly command significant community backing. Indications of popular support help public officials gauge the breadth and depth of feeling on specific issues.
Interest groups frequently ask their members and supporters to mount coordinated campaigns to express their support or opposition to an issue through whatever medium is most appropriate to the situation. These efforts were traditionally based on letter-writing. Many citizens have been primed for this activity by classroom assignments that required students to write to their member of Congress or some other elected official. Increasingly, coordinated phone efforts and email have become frequent supplements to traditional letter writing campaigns.
Letter, postcard, and e-mail campaigns are stronger when supporters use their own words and their own paper. When all of the postcards appear to have been preprinted by an interest group, it conveys the impression that the senders participated only because someone else did all the work. Chain e-mails or obviously forwarded messages also tend to be unpersuasive. A successful postcard or e-mail campaign can demonstrate strength in numbers, but the numbers need to be big, and the messages real and personal, to have the desired effect.
Elected officials, however, may want evidence that what you (and your letters and emails) are asking is what the community wants, not just the goal of a narrow, intense constituency. The burden is on organizers to provide that evidence and to assure continuing support if an official takes up your cause. This is where petitions can play a critical role. Petitions are documents that usually have a short statement of position at the top, with lines below for signatures of those agreeing with the statement.
Petitions are useful tools, but when groups present petitions to public officials they should try to have as many signers in attendance as possible to reinforce the impression that the community supports the initiative in question. The presence of a large group signals that supporters are willing to invest more than the short time it takes to sign a petition. Again, it is critical to show both breadth and depth of support.
6.3 Public Demonstrations
Large public demonstrations of political support or protest provide high visibility for an interest group if their demonstration is well attended. While letters and petitions are effective tools, they are comparatively discreet. Groups may want to call broader public attention to an issue by engaging in "wholesale" campaigning to a mass audience rather than the "retail" approach of reaching decision makers one letter or phone call at a time.
Successful public demonstrations can provide powerful visual statements. If properly publicized and managed, the effects of these visual statements can be magnified through media coverage. There are a variety of types of public demonstrations and events.
Pickets, marches and meetings are the typical ways of showing the strength of your support. Picketers try to leverage media coverage that is already being provided to another event (usually held by your opposition or targets of your action). Picketing also can influence the people attending or planning to attend the event you've targeted, perhaps even to the point that they would not attend. Marches and meetings are events created by a group to communicate to the broader community and to show organizational strength.
But organization is critical. A public gathering that's poorly attended can do more harm than good. Props and backgrounds like banners, posters, placards, and the choice of venue itself, are essential to creating a strong visual message, particularly for television coverage. Organization and planning also help prevent an event from getting out of control, possibly leading to illegal activity that might draw negative attention.
This chapter's feature, Guide to Constructive Confrontation, derived from Saul Alinsky's classic text on protest politics, suggests some guidelines.
6.4 Media Campaigns
Coverage in mass media such as television, newspapers, magazines, and the Internet helps interest groups communicate their message to a broad audience that includes both the general public and government decision makers.
A common element in the media campaigns of well funded interest groups is paid advertising, which ranges from television spots to billboards, and even to sponsoring local little league teams. In the intense struggle over deregulation of local phone service, telecom giants SBC and AT&T spent tens of millions of dollars on paid advertising.
Prior to the 1996 Telecommunications Act, telecom advertising in Texas was generally apolitical and focused on the product, much like advertising for cars, toothpaste, and fast food. But with deregulation, telecom advertising campaigns took on more political overtones. In the new paid advertising both SBC and AT&T trumpeted the virtues of deregulation and competition, while charging each other with anti-competitive, anti-consumer, and anti-employee practices. The emphasis on competition might have been exaggerated, given that the two rivals would later merge in 2005.
The two titans also resorted to associations, coalitions, and other proxies that the public might not connect with either corporation. However, SBC's advocacy advertising typically has run as part of its brand advertising. AT&T, on the other hand, has more heavily relied on proxies for its advocacy campaigns.
While advocacy advertising alone is expensive and of dubious informational or persuasive value, it does raise general awareness of specific issues. But advocacy campaigns - whether by powerful corporations or local grass roots organizations - involve much more than paid advertising. Interest groups seeking public attention often attempt to earn coverage from the news media by turning their policy positions into events that may attract journalists' attention. Print or broadcast media offers the ability to reach a large number of people quickly and helps set the agenda for new policy initiatives. These campaigns may target multiple audiences - for example, both the general public and members of government.
Successfully "placing a story in the media" also may help confer legitimacy on your issue. Groups with limited funding may be able to obtain "free" or "earned" media coverage - in contrast to paid political advertising - in an attempt to offset the advantages of groups that can afford to buy advertising. Of course, nothing stops well-funded groups from using their resources to earn such media coverage too.
Media personnel - such as reporters, producers, and news directors - need certain things from any group they may cover. First and foremost, they need to know that you and your group are legitimate and professional, with a real constituency. There is a lot of competition for coverage, and like public officials, they want to work only with serious people. Media personnel work under extreme time and cost pressures. So, anything you can do to lower their costs and raise the benefits to them of covering your story will help. This might include identifying sources and conducting other background research, providing press releases and photos, summarizing issues, and providing a list of subject matter experts with phone numbers. Remember, you're competing for coverage not only with your opponents on an issue, but with groups campaigning for completely unrelated issues and other non-political news.
In addition to using the mass media (television, radio and newspapers) a group might consider using the Internet. Documents created to support mass media campaigns can be distributed through a group's Web site and posted on public bulletin boards. Group members can also participate in online chats to help disseminate information and persuade others to support the cause. Various kinds of groups also use Web sites to host blogs, which enable members to communicate directly with each other, share information, and debate issues relevant to their interests.
6.5 Attending Public Meetings
Groups can mount effective actions simply by attending the public meetings of government committees and boards. To be effective the group needs to bring a substantial number of its members and plan what will be said and who will say it. In the best circumstances, a group will demonstrate strength in numbers and articulate a clear and persuasive message.
Attending public meetings can be especially effective on the local level where meetings - say, municipal school board hearings - are often sparsely attended. Simply attending may be enough to get a group's concerns on the radar of decision makers. One or a few members of an interest group may attend a public meeting to gather information or to weigh in with members' views. If the group's members are a majority of all those attending, the message is even stronger.
6.6 Legal Action
In addition to trying to influence legislative and administrative officials, groups can sometimes achieve their policy goals through the court system. Groups can sue other groups and individuals, demanding that they either take a certain action or that they desist from a specific action. Governmental organizations on all levels can be sued for non-compliance with the law or with their own charters.
This strategy can be very expensive and is best suited to those groups and interests with substantial financial resources, particularly if legal opponents are companies or business associations with extensive resources to pay legal costs. Such well funded groups are also often able to make substantial contributions to Texas judicial campaigns. While it is illegal to bribe a judge or to sell a favorable decision, the possibility of such misconduct has fueled concerns that campaign contributions exert inordinate influence on the rulings of Texas judges.
6.7 Illegal Action
So far we have talked about the normal and generally acceptable methods of working within the political system to achieve public policy goals. However, sometimes groups and specialized interests use illegal actions to get their way or to otherwise call attention to their issues. We describe some of the more common of these techniques including bribery, sit-ins and occupations, and violence and sabotage.
Bribery - One technique for exerting political influence is bribery, which is always done out of public sight. In recent decades Texas has experienced some high profile cases involving the bribery of state officials. One of the most notorious was the 1970s Sharpstown Bank scandal, which led to the conviction of then House Speaker Gus Mutscher and other legislators (as well as some private citizens) for conspiring to accept (or pay) bribes in exchange for passing deposit-insurance bills favored by Houston banker Frank Sharp.
In 1991 House Speaker Gib Lewis was indicted for ethics violations related to alleged illegal campaign contributions, for which Lewis agreed to a plea bargain that gave him a reduced fine. As a result, Lewis did not seek reelection to the House in 1992. Because of this scandal and news reports of high spending by lobbyists, the Texas Legislature created the eight-member Texas Ethics Commission to enforce new legal standards and reporting requirements for lobbyists and public officials.
The Texas Ethics Commission performs an important function. But too often unethical deals and arrangements are only implicit, making them difficult to monitor or prevent. Nods and winks aren't even required within the dense networks of long-time relationships that are common in most political systems, Texas included. The situation in Texas is clouded even more by a porous and weakly enforced system of campaign finance laws and a notoriously weak Ethics Commission.
Sit-ins and occupations - Sit-ins and occupations were widely used during the 1950s and 1960s in the struggle for civil rights in the South and in protest of the Vietnam War throughout the nation. Although such actions are illegal, the participants generally try to avoid damaging property or injuring others. Many such protest are non-violent and rooted in theories of civil disobedience and non-violent protest that have been influential in modern American political dissent.
In spite of the non-violent intent, participants in acts of protest and illegal resistance place themselves in the position of being arrested and charged with trespassing and other offenses. Interaction with authorities can be unpredictable. In the late 1980s students at the University of Texas occupied the office of the president to protest the university's investments in South Africa, which at the time had a system of white-minority rule called apartheid. When the police came to remove the students, office equipment was damaged and the students were charged with criminal destruction of public property. In addition to criminal charges, some of the student participants were suspended from the university for one year.
Violence and sabotage - Texas, like many other states and other countries, has a long history of political violence. The war for independence from Mexico, the Civil War, and the consolidation of a white-dominated political system after the Reconstruction period all involved the use of violence for political ends.
Although history has judged some of these events more favorably than others, it remains true that in all political systems some groups and interests will resort to violence and destruction of property as tools useful in the pursuit of their political goals.
In the modern period, some grass roots organizations in the United States have revived the use of violence and property destruction to shape the political and economic systems. Notable among such groups is the Environmental Liberation Front (ELF). Typically, these groups occupy the extreme ends of the political spectrum, rejecting the accommodations, compromises, and respect for the law that moderates on both sides value in the interest of political peace.
Organized groups provide critical channels for Texans to communicate their political interests to and attempt to influence government and their fellow citizens. The popular tendency to reduce interest group activities to the negative stereotypes of narrow special interests and carnivorous lobbyists is in large part a by-product of the dynamics discussed in section 4: narrow interests with abundant financial resources that seek private goods have inherent advantages in presenting their case before government bodies and in the public arena, especially the mass media. These advantages are particularly strong in Texas as a result of the weak regulation of campaign financing and the organization of the state legislature.
Despite the often negative image of interest groups, thousands of Texans participate in interest group politics, shaping public policy and the public debate at all levels of the state's political system. Though well-heeled groups may be more effective at gaining influence than groups with very limited resources, section 6 shows that all groups who want to press their causes in the state's political system have a range of powerful tools available to them. Political scientists and historians have spent many years and spilled much ink debating how best to characterize the nature of interest group competition in Texas. Two conclusions are clear: you have many opportunities to get involved with a group or groups, and any groups you join have many ways by which to attempt to influence policy.