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Discuss the role of interest groups in the American political system. First, identify and define at least three types of interest group, giving an example of each. Second, explain at least three ways in which interest groups can influence the government (again, be specific). Finally, identify and describe at least one potential ethical problem that the influence of interest groups on the government can produce.

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Interest groups can amplify the interests of a segment of the citizenry, in both positive and negative ways. Generally, they are portrayed as having a negative influence on politics because they seem to distort the work of government by seeking undue influence over legislation. One's perspective on the role of...

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Interest groups can amplify the interests of a segment of the citizenry, in both positive and negative ways. Generally, they are portrayed as having a negative influence on politics because they seem to distort the work of government by seeking undue influence over legislation. One's perspective on the role of interest groups, however, likely aligns with one's preference for the cause any specific group is pushing. By aggregating the individual power of aligned interests, these groups can work as a coalition to focus attention on a particular cause. They create awareness and sensitivity that might not otherwise occur.

There are many different types of interest groups: economic, governmental, religious, civil rights, and single-issue groups.

Economic groups include specific industry (oil and gas, tech, finance, etc.), trade associations (AFL-CIO), and professional groups (AMA or HMO). Government interest groups might include cities, mayors, or governors who band together to influence federal policy. Religious groups have gained considerable traction in recent decades with the GOP in advancing conservative Catholic and Protestant agendas concerning gay rights and abortion. Civil rights groups like the NAACP seek policies that protect the marginal in society, usually women and ethnic or racial minorities. Single-issue groups focus on one specific area, like the NRA (gun rights), NARAL (abortion), or MADD (drunk driving).

During an election, interest groups can influence policy by endorsing certain candidates that reflect their interests. In the past, these endorsements (from the police, from teachers, from labor unions, from pro-life groups, pro-gun groups, anti-tax groups, and such) can bring several voters to the candidate. They also can pay for campaign ads, relieving the campaign of this expense. In doing so, they narrow the types of issues that may be considered in a free and open election. In order to win, aspiring candidates need to pass a litmus test and are pilloried during the next election cycle if they deviate from expectations. This can sometimes create the impression that a candidate is "owned" by a special interest. George W. Bush, for instance, likely lost his second election for backtracking on a "no new taxes" pledge, even though in retrospect raising taxes seemed to have been a prudent decision.

These groups can also influence policy by crafting legislation and seeking an elected official to sponsor it. This is the most benign way that a group can express and advance its interests. This type of lobbying could be considered a proper use of free speech within representative government. When a public figure agrees with the issue, no ethical conflict seems apparent. Hiring experts to craft language around an issue is more efficient than individual citizens each calling their representatives, and this brings legislation to the floor for a vote more quickly.

However, finding a representative to take up someone else's legislation often involves the group making a payment to the congressperson's campaign. Running for office has become incredibly costly, and much of the House of Representative's two-year term is spent preparing and fundraising for the next election. Interest groups adopt a certain "pay to play" mentality in which they contribute campaign donations in expectation of their interests being advanced.

Ethical dilemmas surface when moneyed interests block representatives from serving their districts and the general population. Elected officials work best when they take in the full picture and make decisions for the country as a whole. Moneyed interests in politics, whether during an election cycle or during the legislative process, can greatly distort that perspective. At the beginning of the 2019 legislative session, HR1 has addressed this problem with a dark money reform hearing.

At the hearing, newly elected congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez highlighted the way perfectly legal influence-peddling can occur (see the C-SPAN hearing). While she was being somewhat ironic here, and was somewhat erroneously suggesting that only dark money influences government, she does draw attention to some of the ethical concerns that interest groups and lobbyists can create in a democracy.

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