Special-Interest Lobbies

William Slany

Lobbies are generally recognized as those individuals or groups who seek to present the point of view of interest groups to members of Congress, generally with respect to specific legislation. But in the increasingly complicated American democracy of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, lobbying must be seen as a wider and more dynamic phenomenon. Interest groups also lobby the executive branch, which has gained expanded discretionary authority from Congress; government officials lobby interest groups in the hope of generating grassroots support for policies and actions; and foreign governments lobby Congress to supplement traditional diplomacy. How and why these newer forms of lobbying arose and function is an important strand in the history of modern American foreign affairs.

The occasional lobbying on foreign affairs issues in the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth century was largely by business and agricultural interests and was generally confined to trade and tariff issues. Until World War II, Congress generally met for short legislative sessions before members returned home; a handful of party oligarchs controlled the flow of legislation. They organized coalitions to adopt legislation and most of the deliberations of congressional committees took place in private. Foreign affairs very rarely rose above the level of inconsequential trade and tariff problems and Congress seldom faced the great pressure of international events that later became customary in World War II and the Cold War. For the greater part of the nation's history, members of Congress—whose constituents were very unlikely to come to Washington—had small staffs whose main task was answering mail, which was not very voluminous. There were few lobbyists and few interest groups in the capital.

By the middle of the nineteenth century Congress had begun in a rudimentary manner to regulate the influencing of legislation by outsiders, but attempts to control lobbyists systematically did not begin until the eve of World War I as a result of a congressional investigation of tariff lobbying by the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). Nothing came of this initial probe, and a "control of lobbying" bill failed to win congressional approval in 1928. But Depression-era investigations of lobbying abuses by the utilities and Wall Street banks resulted in New Deal legislation that regulated public utilities, the merchant marine, and foreign agents and required registration and reporting for the first time in history.

After World War II, and particularly starting in the 1970s, lobbying in Washington expanded to a degree unimagined in previous generations. As the nation grew larger it also became more pluralistic. Interest groups multiplied and often were in conflict. Traditional isolationism or general indifference to foreign affairs was replaced by heightened awareness of the global involvement and reach of the United States. The dissident political movements of the 1960s demonstrated the possibilities of group political activities and prompted the rise of new groups that felt government was not being responsive to their needs and interests. The rapid evolution of efficient and cheap mass communication promoted grassroots advocacy far beyond previous levels.

Perhaps the most important change was the quiet revolution in the fundamental nature and rules of the legislative process in Washington: the fragmentation of the power of the political parties and party leaderships; the promotion of individual candidates with special agendas at odds with party preferences and priorities; and the restructuring of election campaign spending in ways that allowed groups to support particular candidates. Changes in Congress in the early 1970s, which some have described as a revolt of a new generation of younger politicians against old-guard traditional leaders, resulted in a reorganization of power within Congress, including a reduction in the power of party leaders and committee heads and an increase in the role of subcommittee heads and individual members. Instead of several dozen committees guided by the party leaderships, there were more than 200 subcommittees, often run by individual congressmen free of leadership control. Congressional staffs grew from 2,500 in 1947 to 18,000 in 2000.

These changes opened the door for interest groups, lobbyists, public relations experts, and political consultants of all kinds. The number of interest groups expanded steadily, growing by one measure from 10,300 in 1968 to 20,600 in 1988. The number of registered lobbyists in Washington grew from around 500 during World War II to more than 25,000 by the early 1990s. The number of political action committees (PACs) that financed many of the more powerful interest groups increased from a handful in 1970 to more than 4,000 in less than twenty years.

Changes in the 1970s in the regulations governing interest groups further facilitated the expansion of the legion of lobbyists. Congress adopted the Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act in 1946, the first comprehensive law controlling lobbying. It defined a lobbyist as one who has solicited or collected contributions, whose main purpose or the purpose of the contributions was to influence legislation, and whose method of influencing Congress was through direct communications with members of Congress. Lobbyists were required to register with the secretary of the Senate and the clerk of the House of Representatives and file quarterly financial statements listing receipts and expenditures and including detailed accounts of contributions over $500.

The Lobbying Act did not provide for enforcement, and there have been few investigations. Moreover, the law had major loopholes: it did not cover lobbies or industries that did not solicit funds but instead spent their own funds, and it did not apply to lobbying activities that sought to influence Congress indirectly by influencing public opinion. Nor did its provisions apply to the lobbying of the executive branch. Congress sought to close some loopholes with the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 (amended in 1974 and 1979), which compelled disclosure of contributions to and expenditures on behalf of candidates standing for election. The Supreme Court held that the provisions of the law did not apply to "issue groups," whose main purpose was not to elect candidates but to discuss public issues or influence public opinion. The legislation limited the amount of money, known as hard money, that individuals or groups could contribute directly to any candidate in a federal election but not the amounts that could be spent indirectly on behalf of candidates and their electoral campaigns, the so-called soft money. The legislation of the 1970s and ensuing Supreme Court interpretations led to the growth of political action committees (PACs), which could spend unlimited amounts of money on behalf of candidates. They also allowed unlimited expenditures by political parties and interest groups in volunteer efforts to get out the vote and educate voters on election issues.

The congressional limitation on presidential war powers during the Nixon years gained for Congress an expanded share of the responsibility for foreign policy at the expense of the executive branch of government. This new codetermination of foreign policy, combined with the internal changes occurring within Congress, made Congress much more responsive to special interests and their lobbies, which on occasion became decisive players in shaping foreign policies. Lobbies operating outside the executive and legislative branches of government became the means for organizing information about foreign policy issues. They informed and galvanized public opinion regarding particular courses of action and coordinated the persuasion of lawmakers and policymakers to take the issues on board. At the same time, the political parties were less and less able to control and disseminate information about issues or give coordinated statements regarding urgent foreign policy goals and national interests. Moreover, the elaborate information security systems that were deployed within government in the last half of the twentieth century invested foreign policy with a secrecy shield that deprived the public of much in the way of meaningful information on diplomatic crises and commitments. Many Washington lobbyists found that members of Congress and their staffs were their best contacts for influencing foreign affairs or for obtaining unauthorized information. On the other hand, lobbyists and their PACs were—on issues that concerned them—great sources of information for members of Congress and for the public at large and frequently set the tone of the debate on current issues.


Cigler, Allan J., and Burdett A. Loomis, eds. "Interest Group Politics." Congressional Quarterly. Washington, D.C., 1995. The basic collection of essays by experts on the workings of interest groups and their lobbies.

Cohen, Bernard C. The Public's Impact on Foreign Policy. Boston, 1973. The classic description of how the activities of interest groups were seen by mid-level diplomats.

DeConde, Alexander. Ethnicity, Race, and Foreign Policy: A History. Boston, 1992. The best survey on the role of ethnicity in American foreign affairs.

Deese, David A. The New Politics of American Foreign Policy. New York, 1994. The impact of special interest groups and their lobbies appear in all of the aspects of the "new politics" that are closely examined by a group of experts.

Fisher, Louis. Presidential War Powers. Lawrence, Kans., 1995. The basic study of the origins and development of the congressional assertion of control of presidential war powers, a key element in the emergence of foreign affairs lobbies.

Franck, Thomas M., and Edward Weisband. Foreign Policy by Congress. New York, 1979. A close examination of how Congress came to share foreign policymaking with the executive branch and how human rights and other lobbies took advantage of this fact.

Holsti, Ole R. Public Opinion and American Foreign Policy. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1996.

Pastor, Robert A. Congress and the Politics of U.S. Foreign Economic Policy, 1929–1976. Berkeley, Calif., 1980. Provides valuable insights and examples of the role of interest groups in the evolution of American tariff and foreign economic policies.

Patterson, Mark. "The Presidency and Organized Interest Group Liaison." American Political Science Review 86 (September 1992): 612–625. An authoritative study of how presidents use interest groups.

Schoultz, Lars. Human Rights and United States Policy Toward Latin America. Princeton, N.J., 1981. Includes an extensive review and analysis of major human rights interest groups and their lobbies.

Small, Melvin. Democracy and Diplomacy: The Impact of Domestic Politics on U.S. Foreign Policy, 1789–1994. Baltimore, 1996. An outstanding historical summary and analysis of the domestic influences on foreign policy, including the role of interest groups.

Smith, Tony. Foreign Attachments: The Power of Ethnic Groups in the Making of American Foreign Policy. Cambridge, Mass., 2000.

Stalcup, Brenda, ed. The Women's Rights Movement: Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego, Calif., 1996.

Wittner, Lawrence S. The Struggle against the Bomb. 2 vols. Stanford, Calif., 1994, 1997. The indispensable guide to the rise and activities of a major interest group that changed everything.

See also African Americans ; The China Lobby ; Congressional Power ; Consortia ; Environmental Diplomacy ; Human Rights ; Multinational Corporations ; Organized Labor ; Power Politics ; The Press ; Race and Ethnicity .

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