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Lobbyists and Interest Groups

Organizations and groups that attempt to influence political decisions that might have an impact on their members or their goals are called interest groups (Holyoke, 2014). Whom do interest groups represent? At the most general level, the interest-group system in the United States has a distinct bias favoring and promoting upper-class and predominantly business interests. Interest groups are usually regarded as self-serving—with some justification (Rozell et al., 2006). The very word “interest” suggests that the ends sought will primarily benefit only a segment of society such as, for example, prison management companies pushing for tougher sentencing—to fill beds in private prisons (Selman and Leighton, 2010). Still, many interest groups are not in it for profit, as many nonprofit interest groups exist and lobby Congress and state legislatures. These groups advocate for the environment, children’s rights, consumer rights, LGBTQ rights, animal rights, and many other causes. Other interest groups and lobbyists represent foreign governments, small or medium-sized political groups, public and private universities, and various charitable organizations.

The legislative bodies are the natural habitat of political interest groups. These interest groups enter the legislative process through their lobbying activities. Lobbyists are individuals who are paid to try to influence the passage or defeat of a legislation. Lobbying is considered a professional undertaking, and full-time experienced lobbyists are considered essential by most interest groups (Hrebenar and Morgan, 2010). Several thousand interest groups operate in Washington, DC, and they spent more than $6 billion in 2015 and 2016 to lobby Congress, federal agencies, and the White House (Center for Responsive Politics, 2016). Meanwhile, several thousand political action committees (PACs)—groups that are not affiliated directly with a candidate or a political party—contributed almost $2 billion from 2010 through 2016 to the election campaigns of members of Congress.

For better or worse, lobbyists play a variety of roles in the legislative process. As contact persons for the interest groups they represent, lobbyists devote their time and energy to walking the legislative halls, visiting legislators, establishing relationships with administrative assistants and others of the legislator’s staff, cultivating key legislators on a friendship basis, and developing contacts on the staffs of critical legislative committees. As campaign organizers, lobbyists gather popular support for his or her organization’s legislative program. As an informant, the lobbyist conveys information to legislators without necessarily advocating a particular position. Finally, as watchdogs, lobbyists scrutinize legislative calendars and watch legislative activities carefully. This way, they can be alert to developments in the legislative bodies that might affect their interest groups (Levine, 2009).

Many lobbyists are former members of Congress or former government employees who occupied a key position when they were employed. Lobbying groups are willing to pay dearly for the services of an experienced ex-senator or House member, particularly a former chair or senior member of a top committee. For this payment, these groups obtain access to the inner sanctum of government. In Washington especially, ex-lawmakers have privileges that set them apart from other lobbyists—including access to the House and Senate chambers and members’ private dining rooms, gymnasiums, and swimming pools. But there are some restrictions. A former senator who is a registered lobbyist must wait a year before visiting the Senate for the purpose of influencing former colleagues. The House has no such rule but forbids former member to enter the chamber if they have an interest in an issue that is being debated. Supplementing their own personal efforts, lobbyists often have public relations firms stir up grassroots sentiment. This results in a stream of phone calls, emails, and letters to the offices of legislators.

Lobbyists often give small personal presents, free samples of company products such as perfume, and free meals at expensive restaurants to create a receptive climate for their efforts.

At times, however, a “discreet contribution” may turn out to be outright bribery.

A notorious example of this kind of crime was the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) sting operation known as ABSCAM. FBI agents posed as representatives of an alleged Arab sheik who wanted some Washington favors. Eight officials were persuaded to sponsor special bills or use their influence in the government in return for cash or other rewards. One senator was given stock certificates in a bogus titanium mine for his assistance in obtaining government contracts. Another representative was videotaped stuffing $20,000 in his pocket. Those involved in ABSCAM were convicted of various crimes and given fines and prison terms (Coleman, 2006).

 
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