It is not debated that pressure groups have a legitimate role in American government due to the rights placed in the constitution; however, many people believe that they damage democracy and have too much power. It is accepted that inevitably people will seek opportunities to advance their own interests and consequently the number of pressure groups has grown considerably in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Many members of the general public might concede that the interest groups offer some advantages but do not like their ever growing influence.
There are many advantages of interest groups which is why the government has only tried to regulate them in the past instead of out ruling them altogether. Interest groups provide representation which helps make the government more responsive. Although America has elected officials, America is such a huge country that they can not adequately represent all the interests in the diverse society. Therefore interest groups represent the views and opinions of their members and communicate these to the political decision makers. Interest groups also provide legislators with specialist information.
Although congressmen have their own staff to provide information, interest groups can offer detailed or technical knowledge that they would otherwise lack. However there is a suggestion that the usefulness of interest groups as information sources has declined over the years and that congressmen are increasingly uncertain about which groups have credibility and deserve attention. Interest groups also provide a stepping stone between the government and the public as there is considerable hostility towards the decision makers in Washington.
Although there is a clear argument that pressure groups enhance democracy, there are many arguments that they actually damage. One of the main arguments is that interest groups as a whole are unrepresentative of the public as the groups which have the main influence are large businesses and the groups which say they represent a section of the public promote their own advantage rather then the best interests of the public.
Kevin Phillips, a political analyst argues that Washington DC is not a capital so privileged and incestuous in its dealings, that ordinary citizens believe it is no longer accessible to the general public’. Interest groups such as large businesses which have money and resources have power, but groups such as racial minorities, the disabled, the elderly and the unemployed lack the income and bargaining power within their economy to enable them to achieve their goals unless they manage to win enough public support as an election approaches.
Another reason why pressure groups are disliked is the methods which a small number choose to use. The public can have understandable alarm to pressure groups as a small number resort to violence to achieve their aims such as the anti-abortion lobby group which have sent death threats.
A common public view is that pressure groups are a good thing until they manage to gain too much influence. Much of the public anxiety is related to the fear of the behind-the-scenes influence. There is evidence of over powerful large corporations which have so much power that the government is looking after the businesses instead of the little people’. In 2002 Dick Cheney blocked a global deal to provide cheap drugs to poor countries by refusing to relax global patient laws which keep the price of drugs beyond the reach of most developing countries.
The decision was made following intense lobbying from the organisation representing the US leading pharmaceutical companies. Similarly, in 2004 the US government came under attack from the World Health Organisation which stated that the government refused to tackle the problem of obesity because of its business interests with the sugar lobby. The Observer revealed that the president and his senators had received hundreds of thousands if dollars in funding from the Big Sugar’.
The Bush administration weakly defended itself by saying that there is little robust evidence to show that eating too much sugar is a direct cause of obesity. This evidence shows that pressure groups can have too much influence so that the government does not act in the best interests of the public. Interest groups can also work against the president and have large amounts of power by forming iron triangles with the bureaucracy and a congressional committee of whom they have a shared interest.
In 1995 Jonathon Rauch put forward the argument that interest groups damage the economy. He states that the legislators have sought to please a number of interest groups by offering federal government subsidies such as with the farming lobby. Although only 2% of the American population lives on farms, the farming lobby has been particularly successful in gaining subsidies and price supports’. He claimed that the subsidies are enough to buy each fulltime farmer a Mercedes Benz every year. The government justifies these subsidies on the grounds that they protect employment within a threatened industry. However, Rauch points out that these subsidies require taxes on other areas of the economy.
Critics of interest groups also say that former congressmen should not lobby as it is an abuse of public services. It is argued that former officials should not be able to make large sums of money by using the connections which they established while they were serving the public.
As can be seen, there are many criticisms of interest groups which support the view that interest groups damage democracy, however the term interest group’ covers a number of different types of groups which all have very different interests, amounts of power and usefulness. Business and professional interest groups have much more power than agricultural, ideological and public interest or promotional groups. The large business groups are the most influential with 45% of all lobbyists coming from large corporations; this is usually where the problems of interest groups lie. Professional groups are more likely to have more influence because they know how to work the system and use the access points. Therefore, it can be seen that large business groups damage democracy, but the smaller groups enhance it by representing different groups in the community.