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The Greenback Rules? Pressure Groups and Money in US Politics

Jim Riley

11th January 2014

Michael McCartney (Bradford Grammar School) examines the role of money in pressure group politics in the US.A printable version of this article appears in the latest edition of FPTP - tutor2u's digital magazine for AS & A2 Politics students.

It is well established that American politics is awash with money, but we have to be careful in evaluating the extent of its influence. This is especially the case in relation to pressure group politics.

The Californian politician Jesse Unruh is responsible for one of the greatest quotes in American politics: “Money is the mother’s milk of politics.” And to discuss the importance of dollars in the US system, we would have to cast a roving eye over the whole terrain of the US system, pausing to zero-in on the federal budget, pork barrel politics, and campaign finance to name just three areas. But here we are concerned with issues of interest group politics.

Any discussion of the topic essentially pivots around competing ideas of pluralism and elitism. If you take the view that interest groups more successfully promote the ideas of the minority and distort notion of government for the people then one would infer that you were going to ultimately conclude that pressure groups were undemocratic. One of the ways this outcome is said to be achieved is via the influence of money, and in particular the idea that the huge sums spent on lobbying lead to desirable policy outcomes for a narrow band of individuals and groups. But to what extent is there a causal relationship between money spent by special interests and policy outcomes? Important research by Amy McKay published in the Political Research Quarterly suggests it may not be as straightforward as you think.

First of all, a quick definition of terms. What exactly is lobbying, who are lobbyists, and where are they?

“Lobbying” itself is a term which derives from the habit of British legislators (from both the Commons and Lords) frequenting the corridors of Westminster in proximity to debates in an attempt to influence their outcome. In a US context it is more common to refer to lobbyists as professionals whose career is devoted to persuading politicians (most usually members of Congress, but the term also extend to encompass members of state legislatures, and the federal bureaucracy) to effect policy that is in tandem with the goals of their clients. Often lobbying is a full time professional career comparable to one in law or business that attracts the best and brightest from America’s top universities, and individuals may work for one of the many lobbying firms such as Holland and Knight, or they may work in-house for a special interest. Lobbyists as a collective are sometimes referred to as “K Street” given that many of the firms are located on, or close to, this corridor in downtown Washington DC.

So does money talk?

It is true that the numbers involved from an analysis of the work of the lobbying industry are quite staggering. Furthermore, the rate of increase in spending devoted to lobbying is to some a cause of concern. According to opensecrets.org, the website for Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington DC based research group $1.57 billion was spent on lobbying, but by 2012 this had more than doubled to $3.31 billion. And in that same year the Center reckon that over 12,000 staff worked as lobbyists. Unsurprisingly (given their base wealth) top of the big spenders are groups such as commerce, energy, and the notorious “Big Pharma”.

McKay’s research is far bigger than any previously conducted, and measures considered included the organisation’s income, size of membership, and whether the group had an associated PAC. McKay stated: “The results indicate that having money alone does not make a lobbying organisation more successful – but having more money is linked to certain lobbying tactics and traits, and some of these are associated with greater policy success.”

One would imagine that business interests would be top of the pile given their income but they were no more successful in achieving policy success than public interest groups (if students were looking for an example here, the Sierra Club would be legitimate. It spent $240,000 on lobbying in 2013. By contrast Google spent $11.46m).

So what does matter?

If a lobbyist has experience of the policy making process having served either in Congress of the federal bureaucracy (note in some cases individuals can have both) this can be a positive contributor to success. We could say therefore that the “revolving door” matters. It cannot, as McKay stresses, guarantee success by itself.

What is also of importance is the ability to exploit access points in the US political system. The vertical and horizontal separation of powers created by the Constitution, in other words, mean that part of the game is multi-arena and multi-dimensional. This makes obvious sense. There’s no use having a well resourced and well established office that focuses on Congress if the real action is in the executive arm of government and, say, state level.

Therefore money helps in securing lobbyists with a better Rolodex, and it helps fund lobbying across the US political system. This means that money is associated with the things that bring success, but that is not say that it can buy success since less well funded groups can have the same modus operandi.

In conclusion, we can see that money helps but it does not secure a definite advantage. Students have to note this subtle distinction, even if they do ultimately arrive at the conclusion that US interest groups are damaging to democracy.

Questions

Outline the role of significance of lobbying in the US political process

Use opensecrets.org to research the latest news on money in American politics

Discuss whether the findings of McKay’s research are sufficient to alter your position on whether interest groups are beneficial to democracy

Jim Riley

Jim co-founded tutor2u alongside his twin brother Geoff! Jim is a well-known Business writer and presenter as well as being one of the UK's leading educational technology entrepreneurs.

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