U.S. Politics: Special Interest Groups & Lobbyists
The fact that politically motivated organizations and the lobbyists who serve them continue to operate with enormous degrees of access to government is a testament to the notion that they serve an important purpose in the democratic political process. This paper will explore the dynamics of special interest groups and their efforts to advance their agendas within the government under which they exist.
Keywords ERA; GLBT; Home Party; Identity Politics; Lobbying
Sociology of Politics
In 1215, a group of English barons grew tired of the abuse of power demonstrated by King John and the British monarchy. The feeling of disenfranchisement and a lack of access to the king's public policy had pushed a relative few English nobles to take action against the king. At Runnymede, in June 1215, King John was forced to sign a document which would curtail the extents of his power as it related to the barony and the rest of the population as well. The document is viewed by history as little more than a stalling tactic by the king and political posturing by the barons. In fact, once signed, the Magna Carta would stay in effect for no more than three months (Ibeji, 2002).
Despite the short period during which the Magna Carta was in effect, its significance was dramatic. For the first time in the history of the Western world, the monarchy was challenged not by a usurper but by private citizens who demanded that their government be responsive to their needs and, most importantly, limited in its power. In essence, the nobles were reining in those who reigned over them. By doing so, they also left open the door for future private citizens to solicit their leaders for assistance. Laws applied to British subjects were to become fluid—individuals could appeal for changes to them if they were unjust or otherwise overly offensive (Fordham University, 1995). In other words, the Magna Carta introduced the concept of lobbying the government.
Lobbying and the so-called special interest groups who engage in such endeavors have often received a cold reception by casual observers, who take to task the monies donated and access to leaders facilitated through lobbying activities. In 1869, a newspaper correspondent published a report about a monster; a "dazzling reptile" that was "trailing its slimy length from gallery to committee room" stretching across the floor of Congress. It was the "huge, scaly serpent of the lobby," the embodiment of corruptive elements that after the Civil War were, in his estimation, inappropriately infiltrating Congress (US Senate, 1989). Negative opinions about special interests and the lobby abound, not just in the US but in democratic systems around the globe as well.
The fact that politically motivated organizations and the lobbyists who serve them continue to operate with enormous degrees of access to government is a testament to the notion that they serve an important purpose in the democratic political process. This paper explores the dynamics of special interest groups and their efforts to advance their agendas within the government under which they exist.
A Natural Element of Democracy
President Harry Truman, when outlining the tenets of what would be known as the Truman Doctrine said, "No government is perfect. One of the chief virtues of a democracy, however, is that its defects are always visible and under democratic processes can be pointed out and corrected" (The Avalon Project, 1997).
Indeed, democracy, as a result of its nature as a government for, of, and by the people, is a fluid institution. The leaders, whether presidents or legislators, may have the legitimate authority to write and enforce the laws, but private citizens have always been able to seek corrections to existing laws they find unfavorable or to offer ideas for new laws that would be to their benefit. Public involvement and lobbying have always seemed to be concurrent with the development and maintenance of a democratic government. In the mid-18th century, even before the Revolution, the Williamsburg, Virginia colony had cobbled together an early democratic system that, while managed by politicians or the elite, got its energy outside of government buildings. Activism was to be found in the taverns, where carpenters, bakers, smiths, and even slaves would meet to discuss how the local government could make life better in this small city ("The historical background," 2008).
As was the case at Runnymede, the framers of the US Constitution believed that democracy needed flexibility. Therefore, it was essential for the public to have access to its modification, if so needed. The 1st Amendment to that document states this point clearly: "Congress shall make no law … abridging … the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances" (qtd. in Emory Law School, 2006). The fact that this provision is contained within the same section that protects the rights to free speech, assembly, and freedom of religion speaks volumes to the significance of protecting and, where necessary, adjusting the law to advance the interests of all residents of the US.
The Battle for Equality
Given the Constitution's paramount status as the true definition of the law in the United States, it comes as no surprise that the Constitution has long been a battleground for those who represent social groups in seeking protections under the US legal code. The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) provides an interesting example of this point. The pursuit of the ERA has been ongoing since its introduction in 1923. In their quest for a 28th Amendment to the Constitution, advocates have engaged in hunger strikes, sit-ins, marches, political boycotts, and other tactics to be heard on a national stage (Francis, 2008).
In 1972, their efforts paid off, as the Equal Rights Amendment was given national air. It passed overwhelmingly in both the US House and Senate, by votes of 354–23 and 84–8, respectively. Both major parties included it in their platforms, and the measure also received presidential support. The states jumped on the idea in 1972—22 states voted to ratify during that one year. However, momentum would slow considerably in the years that followed. By 1979, only 13 more states had voted in favor of the ERA. It never got closer to the 38 states needed to ratify.
What happened? The answer for many was a simple matter of organization. In the years leading up to the ERA effort in 1972, the women's movement was recognized as the platform of a disjointed group of women's groups, many of which did not communicate well with one another. However, by 1972, those groups had become interconnected. Thereafter, another lobbying effort began to coalesce in a similar manner, but this group was staunchly opposed to the ERA. With catchy names like Pro-America, the American Party, and Happiness of Womanhood (HOW), their organizational capabilities matched those of the pro-ERA groups. In 1980, the anti-ERA effort was successful, having kept the ratification process stagnant and, amazingly, even reversed it, as five states voted to rescind their original vote (Boles, 1980). Efforts to pass the ERA nevertheless continued, and in 2013, the bill was reintroduced in Congress.
The Importance of Organization
The ERA provides an important point to be made about the effectiveness of special interest groups in creating social change in a...
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