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How Do Citizens Connect With Their Government?

5c. Interest Groups

Boy Scouts of America
When controversy erupted over whether to keep both the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts as single-sex organizations, representatives from both groups exercised a form of lobbying — they testified before Congress at hearings on the issue.
So, the election is over. How can the average American remain involved in politics without waiting for the next election? One chief means of influencing the American government is by joining an interest group — an organization that pressures elected officials to enact legislation favorable to its causes.

Types of Interest Groups

Actually, there are three major types of interest groups. Animal rights groups such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals(PETA) and environmental interest groups such as Greenpeace usually organize as public-interest groups. These groups claim to work not for self interest but for the best interest of the public.

National Organization for Women
The National Organization for Women (NOW) pressures Congress and other legislative bodies to adopt laws and measures that they feel most benefit American women. They also work hard to get more women into elected office.

Underpaid professional workers may organize as groups. Lawyers belong to the American Bar Association, doctors belong to the American Medical Association, and teachers belong to the National Education Association or the American Federation of Teachers. Labor unions such as the AFL-CIO and the Teamsters' Union to protect workers in factories or businesses.

The most common type of interest group is formed around businesses, corporations, and trade associations. Part of their reputation for power is based on the fact that they represent about half of all interest groups in Washington. People who criticize interest groups for having undue power in government believe that the business groups get special privileges for people who already have more wealth and power than ordinary citizens. For example, the oil and tobacco industries each have interest groups who promote their respective interests on Capitol Hill.

How Interest Groups Work

Interest groups send representatives to state capitals and to Washington, D.C. to put pressure on members of Congress and other policymakers. They engage in lobbying, or the organized process of influencing legislation or policy. Lobbying can take many forms. Interest groups can testify in congressional hearings. For example, several years ago, when Congress was considering discrimination in private clubs, representatives of the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts appeared in hearings to try to persuade Congress to allow each one to remain a single-sex organization. Lobbyists also contact government officials directly or informally, present research results and technical information, talk with people from the press and the media, and sometimes even help to draft legislation.

AFL-CIO
The AFL-CIO is a massive labor union organization, with over 13 million members in 68 individual unions across America.

Why should the politicians listen? Interest groups also actively involve themselves in political campaigns. This electioneering is intended to help elect candidates who favor their positions or to defeat those who oppose them. It is generally conducted by political action committees (PACs), who serve as special political arms for the interest groups.

Tobacco industry donations
This chart outlines the donations of political action committees (PACs) that represent the tobacco industry from January 1997 to June 1998. Notice how the levels of giving fluctuate given the corresponding congressional action.

The number of PACs has grown rapidly since the early 1970s, when campaign finance reform laws were passed that restricted individual contributions to campaigns. PACs have changed the face of American elections. They have contributors who write checks to them specifically for the purpose of campaign donations. For example, if a person wants to support candidates who oppose gun control, he or she can contribute to the PAC that represents the National Rifle Association. The PAC, then, will make direct contributions to individual campaigns of selected candidates.

Do interest groups corrupt government by "buying" influence? Critics believe that they do because more money comes from businesses and corporations than from any other source. This, they contend, gives them a connection to government that ordinary people do not have. From another point of view, everyone is free to form and join interest groups. So many exist that there is literally a group for everyone. These multiple contacts make the American democracy stronger, because they give the opportunity for all Americans to have better access to their government.

On the Web
Open Secrets
Under the slogan "Your guide to money in the American elections," OpenSecrets.org provides data on the most expensive Senate and House races in America, as well as information on the donations to the latest presidential election. You can also access records of how much particular industries are donating to issues and political campaigns — for instance: computer industry donations have skyrocketed in the last decade. This website is a "priceless" resource for anyone concerned about the influence of interest groups on American politics.
National Organization for Women
The National Organization for Women (NOW) claims half a million contributing members and is a powerful political force, lobbying for dozens of different women's issues — including the right to receive equal pay for equal work. Visit the NOW site to see what plans they have to help elect women to higher offices throughout the United States and bring change that matches their agenda.
NOW — Political Action Committees
Homepage for the National Organization for Women's lobbying efforts.
AFL-CIO
In 1955, the American Federation of Labor merged with the Congress of Industrial Organizations to form the AFL-CIO. Today, 68 individual trade unions are members of the AFL-CIO, which boasts over 13 million working men and women in its membership and is one of America's most powerful and influential lobbying groups. Visit their website for more on the battle for worker's rights.
National Education Association
The National Education Association — or NEA — claims over 2.5 million members among its ranks and is the oldest organization in America devoted to the cause of public education. Check out their homepage for a heap of information on the history of the organization as well as the current challenges facing public education in America.
NEA — Issues
Some of the top issues concerning the NEA today.
Eagle Forum
The Eagle Forum is the brainchild of conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, who is most famous for her opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment. She continues her crusade through her weekly radio address (available here in RealAudio), and legal activism. Keep up with the indestructible Ms. Schlafly at this website.
Handgun Control: Center to Prevent Handgun Violence
Whereas the National Rifle Association works hard for less restrictive gun laws, the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence works for what they call "common sense gun laws." Learn more about their crusade at this website that includes links to statistics, news, and how you can get involved in the fight for gun control.
Soft Money Laundromat
A loophole created by the FEC allows "soft money" contributions, donations from corporations, unions, and wealthy individuals to party treasuries that would otherwise be illegal. Legally, they may only be used for "party building" but some feel that donors expect political favors from party candidates. Common Cause, a citizens' watchdog group dedicated to ending special interest politics, lets you search their database to see where soft money goes and who's giving it up.
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