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Interest groups and lobbying

Interest groups influence public policy by organizing collective action. They can represent industries, social causes, or corporations. These groups can sway Congress through electoral support, lobbying, and financial backing. Major U.S. interest groups include the AFL-CIO, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, NAACP, NRA, and the American Medical Association.

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  • winston default style avatar for user ElectricPython
    Why does the NRA have a higher budget than the American Federation of Labor Unions even though they have less than half the membership?
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user little  ghost
      Right wing groups, including the NRA, tend to be funded by large companies and billionaires, since right wing economic policies tend to favor the rich at the expense of the poor. Left wing or more egalitarian movements tend to be more grass roots, meaning that while a lot of people might be members, each of those constituents will on average have far less money to give.
      In short, the more they favor and are comprised of big companies, the more funding they have relative to their memberships. You can actually see this trend across most of the groups mentioned here - for instance the NRA has only about twice the budget of the US Chamber of Commerce, despite over 10x the amount of members, because it’s wealthy corporations that are going to be most interested and spending the most money on anything that lets them get away with being less regulated.
      (3 votes)

Video transcript

- [Instructor] Let's discuss interest groups and as you can see here, it is one of the three parts of the iron triangle that we first studied when we looked at the bureaucracy in the executive branch. And the whole point of the iron triangle is to show how these different parties can influence each other. And so just as a reminder, an interest group is any collection of folks who organize in order to advocate for something in public policy. This could be groups of corporations. It could represent an industry. It could represent a social cause. And we're going to look at some major interest groups in the United States in a few minutes, but some can be quite large and some can be quite small. But what you see from the iron triangle is how these parties can influence each other. An interest group can give electoral support to a member of Congress by getting its members to go out and vote for that member of Congress, or maybe even doing advertising for that member of Congress or giving direct financial support. In exchange, they might get friendly legislation and oversight, and that'll happen because a congressperson who got that support from the interest group might have a friendly ear to that interest group and might be open to hanging out with lobbyists from that interest group. The term lobbyist, or lobbying is believed to originate in 17th century England where people who wanted to influence members of Parliament would hang out in the lobby of the parliamentary building waiting to talk to those members of Parliament. And that's what essentially lobbyists do today. They try to meet with congresspeople or meet with the staff of congresspeople and try to influence the types of bills that are introduced to Congress for consideration and how various members should vote for those bills. Now bureaucracy, these are the folks who for the most part are doing the work of actually running the government and they have influence and they can dictate what regulations are going to be, who gets various contracts, and so you can imagine that might be of interest to interest groups. Now to make tangible what some of these interest groups are, you have entities like the AFL-CIO, which stands for the American Federation of Labor, Congress of Industrial Organizations. And this is a meta organization of a bunch of labor unions and as you can imagine they are going to advocate for labor-friendly policies. It might be things that favor the manufacturing industry or that favor employees' rights to collectively negotiate with their employer. It might be advocating for trade policies, which would be perceived as more friendly to the American worker. Its membership is roughly 12.5 million people and so just getting them out to vote can have a significant influence on elections. You have groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and what's interesting here, this membership of over 300,000, this isn't just individuals. This includes corporations. Even though the Chamber of Commerce does not have the biggest budget of the groups we're gonna look at, it is actually consistently the biggest lobbying group, spending most of this money on lobbying. And they're going to try to advocate for business-friendly policies in our government. You have groups that advocate for social causes like the NAACP, they don't have a huge budget but they are considered very, very influential when it comes to issues surrounding minority rights. You also have very influential groups like the National Rifle Association. And when we compare the NRA to some of these other groups it's interesting to think about the number of issues they concentrate their efforts on. For example, the Chamber of Commerce might be thinking about a very broad array of policy decisions that might affect commerce, that might affect businesses, while the National Rifle Association and its members, and this is a significant membership here, is likely to be much more focused on a narrower set of issues around gun rights and gun ownership. You have the American Medical Association, which despite its relatively small membership here is highly, highly influential because these 240,000 people are for the most part physicians, who many of us are very used to listening to. You have the American Association for Retired Professionals which has a membership of 37 million people and a budget of 1.6 billion. So these entities can be very large and very, very influential. Now as I mentioned, not all of these dollars go directly to lobbying. They could be spending money on voter education. They could be spending money on legal funds to advocate for cases that are in their interest. They could be giving direct support to various candidates or to various parties. They could be advertising in the media for their cause. But if we think about directly lobbying, this chart right over here is quite interesting. It comes from OpenSecrets.org and if you're really intrigued by understanding more of how money and influence come together in American politics I encourage you to go to their site. But this is a list in 2017 of the top spenders in lobbying in the United States, and as I mentioned you see here at the top the U.S. Chamber of Commerce at $82 million, and this isn't even the most they've ever spent in a year. There's some years where it is well over $150 million that they've spent. The National Association of Realtors, the Business Roundtable, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. And this money is, for the most part, to pay lobbyists who will meet with members of our government to directly advocate for certain policies. Now an interesting thing to think about is what positive things might be done by interest groups, and what potentially negative things might be there and how equitable is this system? The positive things, folks could argue, are hey, they could work on voter education. Many issues that policy makers are trying to decide on are quite complex, so it might be good to have experts weighing in, but on the other hand, it might seem like money is disproportionately influential and that industries that generate a lot of money could have a disproportionate amount of influence and they could potentially use that influence to further benefit those industries to give them even more power and influence. So I will let you decide.