Regulation of Interest Groups

Interest groups have both their opponents and supporters. The critics maintain that they only give those who have considerable wealth and power additional political influence and that the tactics used and the money available corrupts the political process. The defenders argue, on the other hand, that the system is much more open than in the past and point to the effective lobbying that groups representing women, minorities, and older adults are able to do. They claim that instances of corruption are the rare exceptions, and they champion interest groups as a vehicle for Americans to petition the government. As in other areas, however, this First Amendment guarantee is not absolute. The courts have ruled that limitations on lobbying are legitimate because its goal is to directly influence legislation.

Controls over lobbying

Lobbyists are required to register with the clerk of the House and the secretary of the Senate and indicate what group they are representing, the amount of their salary or compensation, and what types of expenses are reimbursed to them. They also have to file quarterly financial statements. These controls, which admittedly have not been effective in limiting abuse, date from the 1946 Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act. In addition, lobbyists who represent foreign governments or corporations must register with the Justice Department as agents of those countries.

Congress has also attempted to slow down the so-called "revolving door" by which an official begins to lobby his or her colleagues immediately after leaving a government position. Under the 1978 Ethics in Government Act, senior executive branch officials cannot lobby federal agencies on a matter that fell within their scope of responsibility for two years after leaving government service. In addition, they are prohibited from lobbying anyone in their former agency 1) on any issue for one year and 2) forever on matters that they were involved in.

The success of lobbyists depends on their personal ties with those in government. Those relationships were often cemented with gifts that could range from tickets to a football game to weekends at resort hotels. Reforms adopted in 1995, banned all gifts to members of the House and put limits on the value of gifts to senators. The legislation also required lobbyists to disclose the issues and bills they worked on and the branches of government they contacted. Stricter rules regarding lobbying were also adopted by Congress in 2007 in response to highly publicized scandals. The Senate now bars all gifts from lobbyists, lobbyists are required to disclose payments to organizations controlled by or named for a member of Congress, and "bundled" contributions from lobbyists are more closely scrutinized.

Control of political action committees

Many Americans are concerned with the amount of money PACs raise and give to candidates. The public interest group Common Cause believes PACs should be abolished altogether. Short of this step, there are proposals to reduce the amount of money an individual PAC can contribute to a candidate or the total amount the candidate can accept from all PACs. Expanding federal financing of elections to include congressional races or making some provision for the government to underwrite certain types of campaign expenses would also limit the importance of PACs. For obvious reasons, Congress has not been very willing to tackle this problem.