What is the influence of special interest groups on our political system? Are they helpful or hurtful to the American system?
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I have worked as both a legislative assistant to a Member of Congress and a professional staff member of a subcommittee of the House. My observation was that no special interest group (SIG) was ever able to convince a Member to do anything that would alienate or anger his/her constituency. What they do is provide information to Members (and their staffs).
Clever SIGs take the time to provide information about how their position will affect those constituents, negatively or positively. The best lobbyist I know went a step further and would frankly discuss with me the position the opposing groups would take and tell me which of those points were lies (!! yep, SIGs do provide misinformation) and which were, in his opinion, valid policy questions that were ultimately going to have to be decided by the Member on his own.
SIGs affect the debate by bringing matters to the attention of lawmakers and by providing tutoring and research for Members and their staffs on the more arcane but important decisions underlying a general matter of law. As is true in much of life, the devil is in the details, and many Members became very reliant on professional groups like the American Academy of Actuaries for technical expertise on boring but necessary questions like how much money does a health insurance provider need to keep in reserves to reduce the change the provider will become bankrupt. (The Academy -- also a former employer of mine -- is nonpartisan but expert in the field of actuarial science.)
Are SIGs helpful or harmful? It depends on a lot of things. Two SIGs with opposing views can really sharpen the debate and improve the resultant legislation. One SIG operating in a field that most Members think is a snoozer anyway can influence the law to benefit its members at the cost of millions of taxpayers who might not have ever agreed to the provisions of that benefit or loophole.
They made my life as a staffer both easier and tougher but, overall, I appreciated their input and expertise since I knew someone in my Little Black Book could bring me up to speed on any matter that happened across my desk.
Mainly, special interest groups represent a concentration of money and lobbying power in the hands of a narrow, vested interest. To simplify that, special interests by definition represent a minority opinion. Now one can argue that every person who writes a letter or stops by to see their Congressperson is a special interest. Fair point. But those organized groups with the money to hire full time lobbyists to campaign non-stop and watchdog legislation that might help or hurt their interest have an unfair advantage over the rest of us government is supposed to represent as well.
Surely, they have free speech rights, and often money is concentrated in important economic and human interests. Another fair point. But I think the negative is that the ordinary American voter gets squeezed out of the process when special interests are active, and when government acts on behalf of those interests, it is not always in the best interest of the majority of Americans.
As with all writings and papers, much of this will have to come from your own creation. There are reasons to support both positions of how special interests help our government and to hurt it. In the case of the former, I would say that anytime a group of individuals can petition their government for change, for advocacy of a particular issue or belief system, it's a good thing. Special interest groups help fulfill the legacy of the First Amendment and help to form the democratic principle that individuals armed with beliefs can impact the direction of government and policy. The natural flip side would be when this advocacy is too great, without institutional checks or limitations, allowing the voices of the few control the policies and government of the many. Special interests can have a damaging impact on government when it creates a sense of oligarchy, when specific individuals or groups can have an oligarchic effect of ensuring that government benefits their own stances on causes and beliefs in how policy should be constructed.
Special interests supply information to Congressmen, which the Congressmen use to formulate laws. Each special interest gives its own slant to the information that it supplies, but there are usually several interests providing information on each issue so that Congressmen get more points of view than just one.
People usually say that special interests are effective only because they give money to politicians. But they are also effective because they can organize highly motivated voters. These voters are highly motivated and may base their votes on single issues. This makes the interest groups very powerful. A great example of this is the NRA, which has members who vote and who are very protective of what they see as their rights.
Are they helpful? They certainly give people who care about certain issues a way to have their voices heard. This is good for democracy. On the other hand, they help a few "loud voices" have more power than a larger group of people who disagree with them but do not care as much.
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