The major differences between special interest groups in the late-19th to early-20th Century period and today is the vastly increased number of such groups lobbying the federal government and the amounts of money that change hands during the process.
The United States is a representative democracy in which public participation occurs through voting and through petitioning of the government for redress of grievances or to advocate a change in existing policies and practices. It is this latter category that is of interest and which is continuously subjected to legal and procedural challenges seeking restrictions or removal of existing parameters on what constitutes proper lobbying. Lobbying of government is an essential part of the democratic process, and efforts at imposing restrictions on it invariably run afoul of the judicial reviews that usually result.
In the late 19th Century, the main groups petitioning the federal government were concerned primarily with women’s suffrage, labor rights (increasingly important as industrialization created new categories of labor), and issues related to Reconstruction in the American South. Other issues for which special interest groups were formed included agricultural policies, immigration, and protection from foreign competition in the area of commerce. Today, special interest groups representing every conceivable issue exist for the purpose of lobbying Congress and the Executive Branch of government. Many self-identified ethnic groups – for example, Greek-Americans, Armenian-Americans, Indian-Americans, African-Americans, and Jewish-Americans – formally lobby the government on a regular basis in efforts at influencing U.S. policies. Both sides on many social issues like gun control and abortion routinely petition the government, as does virtually every sector of economic activity, including shipbuilders, farmers, miners, firefighters, lawyers (unsurprisingly, one of the most influential groups), and many others.
Being a member of a special interest group entails formal agreement to that group’s political agenda and participation in advancing that agenda. Groups routinely walk the halls of Congress to lobby Members of Congress and their staffs for the purpose of affecting change in government policies. All manner of citizen is represented by these groups, and many hire professional government relations firms to assist them in crafting their message and identifying particular politicians with whom to meet. Larger special interest groups maintain offices in Washington, D.C., staffed by individuals whose full-time job revolves around lobbying government and advocating for or against legislation affecting that particular groups’ interests.
A major change from 100 years ago involves legal restrictions, mostly focusing on increasing transparency in how government functions, on lobbying. The Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, a link to an essay on which is provided below, was one legislative attempt at eliminating the more nefarious aspects of lobbying from government by compelling public disclosure of such activities. The subsequent adoption by both chambers of Congress of rules circumscribing certain lobbying activities represented additional efforts at eliminating excesses that degrade public confidence in the institutions of government. Problems, however, remain, and probably always will.