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PUBLIC-INTEREST GROUPS

Lawmakers are very aware that private interests are much better represented than public interests in the lawmaking process (Maloney et al., 1994). Hundreds of organizations and individuals in Washington and in state capitals represent one or more private interests on a full- or part-time basis. They range from extremely well-financed organizations, such as the American Petroleum Institute, involved in worldwide affairs and supported by thousands of engineers, lawyers, and public relations experts, to small, single-issue groups, such as the Sportsman’s Paradise Homeowners Association. Some, such as oil companies, regulate refinery output to maintain prices, and they lobby government representatives for favorable tax policies. Others, such as the Shipbuilders Union and the National Maritime Union, win direct and indirect subsidies from Congress in the guise of national defense requirements. Power utilities are legal monopolies whose rate structures are decided by utility commissions that are, in turn, the focus of tremendous pressures to allow expansion and higher rates for the benefit of managers and investors.

By contrast, the number of groups that represent public interests is quite small. Among the most notable among these are Common Cause, the Sierra Club, public interest research groups (PIRGs), and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). These and other groups have been instrumental in the initiation of a series of changes in the law designed to benefit the public.

Common Cause, founded in 1970, has more than 475,000 members and supporters. According to its website (www.commoncause.org), Common Cause works to “create open, honest, and accountable government that serves the public interest; promote equal rights, opportunity, and representation for all; and empower all people to make their voices heard in the political process" Over the decades, it helped win 18-year-olds the right to vote, achieve public financing of election campaigns, and achieve procedures to reduce ethical misconduct in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The Sierra Club was founded in 1892 by conservationist John Muir, after whom the Muir Woods National Monument in northern California is named. The Sierra Club now has 2.4 million members and supporters. Spurred by the belief that the world faces an environmental disaster unless immediate and successful efforts are made to halt the deterioration of the environment, Sierra Club members “are no longer the outdoor recreationists of yesterday, but rather today’s environmental politicos, in the vanguard of society’s newest social movement,” two authors wrote several decades ago (Faich and Gale, 1971:282). During the last several decades, the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations have provided the impetus for a series of environmental protection laws. These laws include the Air Quality Act of 1967, the Clean Air Act of 1970, and the Clean Water Act of 1972, along with the formation of a number of new federal agencies both to monitor compliance with the numerous existing pollution and environmental protection laws and to help establish new policies.

Modeled after Ralph Nader’s Center for Study of Responsive Law, but independent of it, are the various PIRGs that are found in 47 states and that include thousands of college students at dozens of campuses that have PIRG chapters. All the nationwide PIRGs fall under the umbrella of U.S. PIRG. At the national, state, and local levels, a small professional staff of lawyers, scientists, and organizers aids the PIRGs, which have achieved some significant legal and other changes. For example, from the late-1990s to late-2000s, the

Missouri Public Interest Research Group (MoPIRG), drafted a new consumer code to protect poor people in St. Louis and distributed a handbook on tenants’ rights in Missouri. MoPIRG also participated in a study of the Educational Testing Service and worked with St. Louis unions to secure better enforcement of occupational safety and health laws. PIRGs throughout the nation continue to point out deficiencies in the political and economic systems and to propose legal solutions for their improvement through research, public information, and law reform.

Impetus for law may also come from the various quasi-public specialized interest groups. They may represent certain economic interests, such as consumer groups, organized labor, or the National Welfare Rights organization. Or they may represent certain occupational interests, such as the American Medical Association, which not only exercises considerable control over the practice of medicine in this country, but also actively takes stands, raises money, and lobbies in favor of specific positions on such issues as abortion, euthanasia, drugs, and alcohol. The same can be said for the American Association of University Professors (though not on the same issues). Still other groups represent what may be called moral interests, such as temperance, various types of antidrug concerns, and antiprostitution and antipornography concerns. The important point to remember is that many types of organizations with many different concerns have agitated for changes in the law and provided the needed impetus for it.

For a group to effectively provide an impetus for lawmaking, it will ideally have access to lawmakers. But access to lawmakers depends, at least in part, on the socioeconomic status of the group. Groups with the most financial resources, the most prestigious membership, and the best organization are likely to have the greatest access to legislators. It takes a substantial amount of money to maintain lobbyists in Washington and throughout the state capitals. Moreover, lawmakers, on the local as well as the higher levels, may be more sympathetic to groups that represent interests of the middle and upper classes than to groups representing poor people, welfare recipients, and the like. Generally, groups with “mainstream” views, seeking only small changes in the status quo, may be given more sympathetic hearing than those advocating large-scale radical changes.

 
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