5.6 Interest Groups Influencing Policy Making

7 min readfebruary 11, 2023



AP US Government 👩🏾‍⚖️

240 resources
See Units

Purpose of Interest Groups

Many of our founding fathers —especially James Madison—were concerned about the potential threat of “factions” within the government. They feared 😨 that some groups would act in their own self-interest and threat the formed democracy. We now refer to these factions as interest groups, and like political parties, they play an essential role as a linkage institution 🔗 by connecting people to the government. Many Americans hold negative views of contemporary interest groups due to concerns of bribery 💰, misuse of funds 💸, and other unethical behaviors 🙈, but the First Amendment clearly supports the formation and actions of these modern-day factions.
Interest groups serve as a representation of interests through a number of approaches:
1. Education: Interest groups educate voters and officeholders by providing information and analysis on issues related to their cause. They may also conduct research to support their positions and hold events to raise awareness among the public.
2. Lobbying:  Interest groups conduct lobbying efforts by meeting with elected officials and government agencies to present their views and promote their agenda. They may also engage in grassroots lobbying, where they mobilize to contact elected officials and express their support for a particular issue.
3. Drafting legislation: Interest groups may draft legislation and provide it to lawmakers to introduce and sponsor. They may also work with legislators to shape the language of bills and provide testimony during hearings.
4. Mobilization: Interest groups mobilize their membership to apply pressure on legislators and government agencies. This may include actions such as letter-writing campaigns, phone banking, and rallies. They also work with elected officials and government agencies to advance their agenda and secure favorable policies.

Exerting Influence

Interest groups employ many different strategies to influence policymakers, most notably through direct lobbying. This strategy involves lobbyists making direct contact with lawmakers in an effort to persuade them to pass favorable legislation for the interest group they represent. Lobbyists can do all of the following to exert influence on behalf of an interest group:
1. Expert testimony in congressional committees: Interest groups may send representatives to testify before congressional committees on issues that are relevant to their cause. The testimony of experts can help educate lawmakers on the issue and provide them with valuable information that can inform their decision-making. Expert testimony can also shape public opinion by providing the media and the general public with information about a particular issue. This can increase public awareness and create pressure on lawmakers to take action.
2. Helping members of Congress draft and write bills📝: Interest groups often have a deep understanding of the issues they advocate for, and they can provide lawmakers with technical and policy expertise that can inform their decision-making. By working closely with lawmakers, they can help ensure that bills accurately reflect their views and address the issues that are important to them. Interest groups can also help members of Congress draft and write bills by providing input on the language and provisions of the legislation. This can include offering suggestions for specific provisions or language or suggesting changes to existing legislation.
3. Threaten lawsuits 📃 for reluctant members of Congress: Interest groups can use the threat of a lawsuit as leverage to convince lawmakers to take certain specifics or support certain specifics. By making it clear that they are willing to take legal action, they can increase the pressure on lawmakers to respond to their concerns. In some cases, interest groups may actually file lawsuits if lawmakers do not take action to address their concerns. This can include challenging policies or regulations that are harmful to their interests or suing to enforce laws that protect their rights and interests.
4. Filing amicus briefs 💼 for federal court cases: By filing an amicus brief (a statement filed by someone who is strongly interested in the outcome of a case, but is not a party to it), an interest group can provide the court with additional information and perspectives that may not be represented by the parties in the case. This information can help the court make a more informed decision and potentially influence the case's outcome. By participating in high-profile cases, interest groups can help shape legal precedent by advocating for interpretations of the law that favor their interests. This can have a lasting impact on future cases and the development of the law.
5. Creating ads 📺📻📰 that support or attack politicians: Interest groups can create ads that support or attack politicians in order to public opinion and influence the outcome of elections. By running positive ads for candidates who support their interests, or negative ads against candidates who do not, interest groups can help sway voters and increase the likelihood of electing candidates who are favor causes. Through their ads, interest groups can influence political discourse and bring attention to issues that are important to them. By doing so, they can pressure politicians to take action on those issues and adopt policies that are more favorable to their interests. Finally, interest groups use ads to hold politicians accountable for their actions and decisions. By running negative ads against politicians who have taken actions that are harmful to their interests, interest groups can increase public pressure on those politicians and make it more likely that they will be held accountable for their actions.
6. Making campaign contributions 💰💲💸: Interest groups can contribute to candidates who support their interests to increase the likelihood of those candidates winning elections. This can give the interest group greater access to those politicians and make it more likely that the politicians will take actions that are favorable to the interest group's causes. By supporting candidates who are favorable to their interests, interest groups can also influence legislation and policy outcomes. Candidates who receive campaign contributions from interest groups may be more likely to vote in favor of legislation that is beneficial to those groups or to support policy initiatives that align with their interests.
7. One-on-one meetings with members of Congress 👔💼📆 : Interest groups can meet with members of Congress to advocate for policy initiatives that align with their interests. By doing so, they can educate politicians about their causes and pressure them to take actions that are favorable to their interests. By sharing their expertise, interest groups increase the likelihood that politicians will take actions that are informed by the best available information and that are more favorable to their interests.

Iron Triangles & Issue Networks

All seven approaches described above have an additional consequence: interest groups and institutions interact and learn how to interact with each other and its benefits.
Iron triangles ⟁ are the mutually beneficial policymaking relationships between bureaucratic agencies, congressional committees, and interest groups. Iron triangles are often referred to as “subgovernments” because much of the policymaking process occurs within these arrangements and their degree of independence from direct political control. For example, the National Education Association (NEA) 📚—the largest teachers union in the United States—may engage in an iron triangle by donating campaign funds 💲 to members of the House Committee on Education in return for the advancement of favorable education policy in Congress. The NEA can benefit the Department of Education (a cabinet-level bureaucratic agency) by lobbying Congress to increase their department’s budget, in exchange for fewer federal regulations imposed on public schools.
Issue Networks are similar, shorter-term arrangements that involve multiple interest groups coming together to work toward a common policy goal. These groups may also receive input from mass media outlets 📺, non-profit think tanks 🧠, local government officials, and academics from prestigious universities 🤓    

Limitations of Interest Groups

Interest groups are found at all levels of government and thus present many opportunities to influence politicians, school board members, judges, and any other public policymakers. Interest groups compete with each other to influence these policymakers, which tends to increase overall participation within the government. Interest groups, regardless of how broad or narrow their focus, are created with the intent to make a difference in society. However, they have certain limitations:

Unequal political and economic resources

Interest groups with more political and economic resources can better influence the policymaking process. For example, well-funded interest groups can afford to hire more lobbyists, conduct more extensive advocacy campaigns, and make more enormous campaign contributions. This can give them an advantage over interest groups with fewer resources, as they can better get the attention of politicians and exert influence on public policy. The unequal access to decision-makers is rooted in the concentration of political and economic resources in the hands of a few interest groups, leading to a concentration of power in the political process. This can result in a distorted policymaking process in which the interests of a small number of groups dominate, and the interests of the broader public are overlooked—this way. Groups with fewer resources are less likely to have their voices heard and their interests taken into account. This can limit the diversity of interests represented in public policy and reduce the ability of smaller groups to advocate for their positions.

Free-rider problem

Another challenge some groups experience is the free-rider problem 🛋—when non-members benefit from the efforts of an interest group. For example, suppose the National Rifle Association (NRA 🔫)—one of the largest and most powerful interest groups in the United States—successfully persuades Congress to pass legislation expanding gun rights. In that case, all gun owners will benefit from the law, even if they aren’t dues-paying members of the NRA. The free-rider problem is incredibly challenging for smaller groups with limited money and resources. 
📽️ Watch: AP Gov - Interest Groups & Lobbying

Stay Connected

© 2024 Fiveable Inc. All rights reserved.

© 2024 Fiveable Inc. All rights reserved.