Whether interest groups that exist in the United States are needed is a matter of perspective. That they have a right to exist and to approach the legislative and executive branches of government is not a matter of perspective. The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States reads as follows:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. [Emphasis added.]
The citizenry of the United States has a constitutional right to petition their government for changes it deems appropriate. The Constitution does not specify whether citizens are allowed to petition their government individually or collectively, the latter being the basis of the notion of “interest groups.” One could reasonably conclude, however, that the freedom to “assemble peaceably” was intended to apply to the right to petition the government. It would be extremely difficult to try to make the case that a democratic form of government should deny its citizenry that right.
To the extent that the question of limits can be entertained, there is certainly an opening provided via the issue of regulating financial contributions to political campaigns and to the various legal loopholes that exist and allow for circumventions of what minimal restrictions currently exist. The US Supreme Court has ruled on the issue of campaign finance laws, most notably in its 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, a decision that prohibits congressional efforts at restricting most forms of campaign contributions by corporations and special interest groups. While this decision could be overturned at some point in the future, suffice to say that efforts at restricting special interest groups, including through regulations intended to lessen the influence of money in politics, have proven failures.
So, the second part of the question—should we limit interest groups’ access to Congress and the White House—can be answered in the negative. We cannot and should not limit the freedom of the citizenry to petition its government. The first part of the question regarding the merits of interest groups is considerably more difficult to answer. One person’s nuisance or corrupting influence is another person’s positive contribution to public policy debates. We like those groups and the agendas of which are consistent with our own policy preferences; we dislike those that exist to undermine or reject our preferred policies. No one can definitively determine which peaceful interest group should be allowed to exist and which should be prohibited. It is all a matter of tinkering with the First Amendment, which some people support out of concern for what they consider “hate speech.” It is the ultimate slippery slope. Once one begins to ban or restrict one kind of group, it is difficult or impossible to restrain the impulse to continue down that path.
On the whole, interest groups serve an important role in a democratic system. They represent the interests and views of categories of people and organizations that have a right to be heard. As long as they remain peaceful and operate within the limited constraints of the law, they should be allowed to function.