Gauging the Influence of Public Interest Groups

A Monkey Cage reader and long-time affiliate of Washington public interest groups asks: Do public interest groups influence policy decisions?  For an answer, I asked two political scientists who study interest groups: Dara Strolovich, the author of Affirmative Advocacy, and Matt Grossmann, the author of the forthcoming Not So Special Interests.  Here is their post:

Categorizing groups as representing the “public interest” is tricky.  Even among groups typically considered “public interest groups,” a few relatively large and well-established organizations account for the bulk of opportunities for influence, such as media appearances and committee testimony. And these groups may only represent the interests of their most advantaged constituencies, ignoring the issue concerns of disadvantaged subgroups of their constituencies. “Public interest groups,” in other words, represent small portions of the public.

The answer to the reader’s question depends even more on our standard for influence. If influence means changing the votes of legislators or whether bills are signed into law, interest groups appear to have little influence. Some studies of the influence of lobbying on congressional votes have found no influence and others have found substantial influence but only on a few specific votes. In general, it is hard for groups to bring about changes in the law.  Whoever favors the status quo over any change has a tremendous advantage. Political action committee (PAC) contributions show even less evidence of influence. PACs influence voting on only non-ideological issues. That said, even if they do not generally change legislators’ votes, interest groups do lead legislators to pay attention to issues that they might otherwise fail to address and they can influence the content of policy by drafting model legislation or regulations.

If we interpret policy influence more broadly, public interest groups may be able to compete better with business interests than is commonly assumed. Business and professional associations vastly outnumber public interest groups, but the public interest community has grown at a faster rate. Public interest groups represent 26% of major interest group participants in Washington.  And even though they spend much less money on lobbying than do corporate interests, such spending does not predict which side wins a lobbying debate. In fact, policy historians partially credit public interest groups with one-third of all significant domestic policy enactments since 1945.

What about when public interest groups face business groups in head-to-head competition?

What about the long term? Public interest policies are often weakened by future congresses or administrative agency decisions because more specialized interest groups fight reform over extended periods. Likewise policy changes may be ineffective; the NAACP’s efforts to use the courts to end segregation did not lead to more black schoolchildren attending integrated schools, in spite of the landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education.

To apply this debate to a current example, think about the anti-tax pledge from Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) signed by so many first-year members of Congress. Has ATR influenced policy? First, evaluating causality is hard: most of the people who signed the pledge already opposed tax increases and most votes against taxes are driven by ideology and partisanship, rather than adherence to the pledge. Second, the pledge generally favors the status quo and that comes with quite an advantage. Nevertheless, political science suggests that ATR could influence which issues Congress addresses and the terms of the tax reform debate in the media. ATR is unlikely to singlehandedly affect final votes on any legislation, but, in tandem with many other factors, it could change how the debate over tax policy develops. Many years from now, we might conclude that the group was part of an important movement that prevented tax increases, at least for a while.

Strolovich and Grossmann also recommend these sources for further reading:

Baumgartner, Frank R., and Beth L. Leech. 1998. Basic Interests: The Importance of Groups in Politics and Political Science. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University.

Baumgartner, Frank R., Jeffrey M. Berry, Marie Hojnacki, David C. Kimball, and Beth L. Leech. 2009. Lobbying and Policy Change: Who Wins, Who Loses, and Why. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Berry, Jeffrey M. 1999. The New Liberalism: The Rising Power of Citizen Groups. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.

Gerber, Elizabeth. 1999. The Populist Paradox: Interest Group Influence and the Promise of Direct Legislation. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Grossmann, Matt. Forthcoming in 2012. The Not-So-Special Interests: Interest Groups, Public Representation, and American Governance. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Grossmann, Matt. Unpublished. “Interest Group Influence in U.S. Policy Enactments: The View from Policy History.”

Hall, Richard L., and Alan V. Deardorff. 2006. “Lobbying as Legislative Subsidy.” American Political Science Review 100 (1): 69–84.

Patashnik, Eric M. 2008. Reforms at Risk: What Happens After Major Policy Changes Are Enacted.” Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Pinderhughes, Dianne M. 1995. “Black Interest Groups and the 1982 Extension of the Voting Rights Act.” In Blacks and the American Political System, edited by H. L. Perry, 203–24. Gainesville: University of Florida Press.

Rosenberg, Gerald. 1991. The Hollow Hope: Can Courts Bring About Social Change? Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Strolovitch, Dara Z. 2007. Affirmative Advocacy: Race, Class, and Gender in Interest Group Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Smith, Mark A. 2000. American Business and Political Power:  Public Opinion, Elections, and Democracy.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Witko, Christopher. 2006. “PACs, Issue Context, and Congressional Decisionmaking.” Political Research Quarterly 59(2): 283-295.

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