Tactics of Interest Groups

Interest groups not only report developments or trends but also try to influence them in a manner that benefits their members or the cause they support. This persuasion is accomplished through lobbying, grass-roots campaigns, political action committees, and litigation.


Lobbying efforts are directed primarily at the national level: committees of Congress that consider legislation, administrative agencies that are responsible for writing or enforcing regulations, and executive departments. Lobbyists depend on their personal relationships with members of Congress and the executive branch, which are based on keeping in regular contact. Many lobbyists have served in government themselves. This means they have worked, in some cases for years, with the very people they are now lobbying; this experience gives them invaluable insights into how things are accomplished in Washington.

The critical legislative work in Congress takes place in committees. Lobbyists testify at committee hearings, provide the staff with information, and, more frequently than most people realize, actually write the legislation. They are sophisticated professionals and do not simply say to senators, "Vote for this bill or else," but instead explain why the bill is important to their constituency as well as what impact it will have in the senator's state. A lobbyist may have a politically connected member of the interest group contact the senator.

Important public policy decisions are made by regulatory agencies such as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Lobbyists or interest-group lawyers, particularly those representing corporations and trade associations, use the same tactics with agencies as they do with Congress. Developing regulations is a multistep process that involves initial drafting, hearings and submission of comments, and the issuance of final rules. Interest groups are involved in all stages: They testify before administrative hearings, submit comments or file briefs, and draft the regulations their clients are required to operate under.

One of the criticisms of lobbyists is that they have too direct a role, based on their relationships with government officials, in how laws are written and implemented. The term iron triangle (also known as a cozy triangle) describes the ties between congressional committees, administrative agencies whose funding is set by the committees, and the lobbyists who work closely with both. Few policy areas are still governed by tightly knit subgovernments, however. Policy in areas such as telecommunications and banking generally emerges from much more complex issue networks involving diverse players who are united, if anything, by their expertise in the area.

Grass-roots campaigns

An interest group can influence policy by marshalling its constituents and appealing to the public for support. It may urge its members to write to their representative and senator or even call them on the eve of an important vote. The NRA is known for its effective use of this tactic. Direct mail can also reach people who are not members and solicit both their backing for a particular policy and a contribution. During the debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), business and organized labor mounted major print and media advertising campaigns to rally public opinion.

Groups with agendas as different as MADD's, the NRLC's, and the AFL-CIO's have organized demonstrations and protests that usually get media attention to publicize their cause. Interest groups may also directly help candidates who support their positions by providing them with campaign workers and using their own members to get people to vote; they may publicly endorse candidates for office as well as give money to the candidates' campaign funds.

Political action committees

Political action committees (PACs) are groups that raise and distribute money to candidates. They may be affiliated with an existing interest group, such as a labor union or trade association, but they can be independent. When changes in campaign financing laws in 1971 limited the amount of money an individual could contribute, PACs became a major force in American politics. The number of PACs has grown dramatically in the last 20 years, as has the amount of money they donate. Under current law, there is a $5,000 limit on PAC contributions to candidates for Congress.

PACs are not always separate from other interest groups. Often they are the campaign-financing wing of a larger lobbying effort. Among the top ten PACs, judged by their donations to campaigns in recent years are the National Association of Realtors, the American Bankers Association, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. It is not surprising that labor unions give the overwhelming majority of their contributions to Democratic candidates while most business groups favor Republicans.

It is unclear how much the contributions actually change policy. Because most of the money goes to incumbents and because research has not turned up much evidence that members of Congress change their votes in response to contributions, many scholars doubt that the money has any direct impact. On the other hand, a member of Congress keeps a busy schedule and has little time to consider the desires of everyone. Contributions are a good way to buy time, either opening channels of access to representatives or convincing them to work hard promoting legislation.


When Congress and the executive branch are unresponsive, interest groups can turn to the courts for remedy. The NAACP, for example, played a major role in the landmark civil rights cases of the 1950s and 1960s. Pro-life groups have filed suit in state and federal courts to limit abortions. Planned Parenthood, on the other hand, has sought injunctions against demonstrators blocking access to clinics where abortions are performed. Interest groups may be a plaintiff in a lawsuit, provide the attorneys or underwrite the costs of the legal team, or submit an amicus curiae brief in support of one side or another.