Few would argue that one person could not make a difference in American politics. But there is power in numbers, and political institutions are more likely to respond to a collective rather than to an individual voice. An interest group is an organization whose members share common concerns and try to influence government policies affecting those concerns. Interest groups are also known as lobbies; lobbying is one of the ways in which interest groups shape legislation and bring the views of their constituents to the attention of decision-makers.
Elected officials as well as the public are often critical of the roles of "special interests" in the political process. The activities of lobbyists can smack of vote-buying and influence-peddling. There are so many organized lobbies today, representing numerous segments of society and addressing such a wide range of issues, that the distinction between "special interests" and those of the American people may no longer be valid. In a sense, interest groups are the American people.
There are 23,000 entries in the Encyclopedia of Associations, and a high percentage of them qualify as interest groups. Many have their national headquarters in Washington, D.C., for ready access to legislators and policymakers. Interest groups can be grouped into several broad categories.
Economic interest groups
Certainly the largest category, economic interest groups include organizations that represent big business, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), as well as big labor — the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organization (AFL-CIO) and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, for example. Large corporations and individual unions also have offices in the capital. Trade associations represent entire industries. The members of the American Public Power Association (APPA), for example, are municipally owned electric utilities, rural electric cooperatives, and state power authorities. Professionals also form interest groups. The American Medical Association (AMA) opposed legislation to create health maintenance organizations (HMOs) for years.
Public interest groups
Public interest groups do not usually expect to profit directly from the policy changes they seek. However, the activists who staff these groups gain financially by attracting donations from individuals and foundations who support their activities. As the name implies, public interest groups enjoy an image of non-partisanship, even though some of them engage in clearly political activities (such as when Common Cause joined the fight against President George W. Bush's attorney general nominee, John Ashcroft). These groups also usually receive disproportionately positive news coverage, even when there is serious disagreement over their policy proposals. A large number of consumer advocacy groups and environmental organizations, such as the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), fall into this category. Perhaps best known is the League of Women Voters, which promotes simplified voting procedures and an informed electorate, and Common Cause, which backs more effective government. Common Cause is a strong critic of other interest groups for their excessive campaign contributions, and it lobbies for campaign finance reform.
Government interest groups
Given the structure of our federal system, it is not surprising that there are organizations to bring the issues of local and state government before Congress and the administration. Government interest groups include the National League of Cities, the National Conference of Mayors, and the National Governors Association. One critical task performed by these groups is to help state and local governments get federal grants. These funds are important because they are a central means in which states get back money taken away through federal taxes. As the budget has tightened and as more Republicans have won governorships, these groups have become more likely to seek more local control over policies instead of more cash.
Religious interest groups
The separation of church and state does not preclude religious interest groups from lobbying; indeed, it is safe to say that all religious groups are involved in politics to some degree. The Christian Coalition, which draws most of its support from conservative Protestants, has an agenda that includes support for school prayer, opposition to homosexual rights, and a constitutional amendment banning abortion. It became an important factor in American politics, particularly in the Republican party, in the early 1990s.
Civil rights interest groups
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), the National Organization for Women (NOW), and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force represent groups that historically have faced legal discrimination and, in many respects, continue to lack equal opportunity. Their concerns involve more than civil rights, however, and encompass social welfare, immigration policy, affirmative action, a variety of gender issues, and political action.
Ideological interest groups
Ideological interest groups view all issues — federal spending, taxes, foreign affairs, court appointments, and so forth — through the lens of their political ideology, typically liberal or conservative. Their support for legislation or policy depends exclusively on whether they find it ideologically sound. Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), a liberal group, and the American Conservative Union (ACU) rate elected officials by the same standard. A Republican challenger might point to an incumbent's high ADA rating to show that he or she is too liberal to represent the district.
Single-issue interest groups
Some interest groups are formed to advocate for or against a single issue. Although other interest groups may have a position for or against gun control, it is the only issue in the political arena for the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the National Coalition to Ban Handguns (NCBH). The same is true of abortion, which pits the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) against the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL). These examples are not meant to suggest that single-issue interest groups always generate their opposite. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), which campaigns for stiffer sentences for driving while intoxicated and mandatory penalties for the first offense, clearly does not.
Although most interest groups focus on domestic issues, some are concerned with foreign policy. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), for example, focuses on the Middle East and the relationship between the United States and Israel.