Types of Interest Groups

Interest groups vary greatly in their missions and memberships. Some are dedicated to a single issue; others represent professional organizations and associations; still others are advocates for the “public interest.” Their size can range from millions of members to several dozen. Some wield enormous clout while others have limited influence. Most interest groups can be classified into three categories: economic, public-interest, and single-issue.

Economic Interest Groups

The primary purpose of a vast majority of interest groups is to provide economic benefits to their respective memberships. Business groups, labor organizations, and professional associations are examples of interest groups that seek to gain economic advantages.

One of the most influential business groups is the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Representing more than 200,000 companies nationwide, the Chamber's annual dues exceed $30 million. The Chamber lobbies on behalf of its members for laws and regulations that promote economic growth and commercial activity. With a budget of $25 million, the National Association of Manufacturers is another powerful business lobby. Its sole focus is to support legislation that creates manufacturing jobs and oppose bills that eliminate them. In 1993, it lobbied frantically against the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) because it feared that the agreeement would result in the exportation of manufacturing jobs to Mexico and Canada. Although NAFTA eventually became law, the association did win several concessions that helped mitigate the impact of the agreement on its membership.

Labor unions are another type of business interest group. The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) ranks among the most powerful interest groups, with more than 13 million members. Every year it contributes millions of dollars to political candidates and provides grassroots campaign support at the local, state, and national level. The overwhelming majority of its campaign contributions and assistance is given to Democratic incumbents and challengers. The Teamsters and the United Auto Workers (UAW) are also powerful labor lobbies, with 1.5 million and 800,000 members, respectively.

Professional associations compose another type of economic interest group. The American Medical Association (AMA), Screen Actors Guild (SAG), and American Bar Association (ABA) are three of the most influential professional associations in America. During the 2000 election, the AMA contributed several million dollars to candidates, making it one of the largest political contributors in America. The Screen Actors Guild often uses the star power of its membership to lobby Congress and the White House for favorable treatment.

Although not often thought of as a business interest group, the American Farm Bureau Federation, with its 5 million members, is one of the oldest and most influential business lobbies in Washington. Founded in 1919, the federation has been instrumental in winning generous subsidies, price supports, and tax advantages for the nation's food growers.

Public-Interest Groups

A fairly recent category of interest groups is the so-called public-interest group. The mission of public-interest groups is to protect the rights, resources, and liberties common to all Americans — in other words, to act “in the public interest.”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is the granddaddy of public-interest groups, dating back to the First World War. Known primarily for its involvement in legal battles related to the abuse of civil liberties, the ACLU is also a forceful lobby on Capitol Hill against legislation that impedes the Bill of Rights, particularly the First Amendment.

The modern public-interest movement traces its origins to the 1960s, when citizen-activist Ralph Nader created a consumer watchdog group called Public Citizen. Over the past four decades, Nader has formed or sponsored more than fifty public-interest groups, including Citizen Works, the Health Research Group, and the Public Interest Research Groups (PIRG), an activist organization funded and controlled by college students.

Common Cause, another grassroots public interest group, played an important role in winning passage of the Twenty-Sixth amendment (which extended the right to vote to eighteen-year-olds), the “Government in the Sunshine” laws of the mid-1970s, and campaign finance reform. It works on nonlegislative issues as well, such as achieving greater voter registration.

Ralph Nader shot to national prominence in 1965 with the publication of his book Unsafe at Any Speed, which chronicled General Motors's attempt to conceal from the public dangerous defects in its rear-engine Corvair car. GM tried to discredit Nader by investigating his past, for which Nader retaliated with a lawsuit. It was ultimately settled in his favor for $400,000.

Environmental organizations such as Greenpeace, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Sierra Club, and the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) are considered public-interest groups. Greenpeace takes a more radical approach to fulfilling its vision, while the Sierra Club, NWF, and others work within the political system to achieve policies that protect the environment. The Nature Conservancy uses contributions from its members to purchase and preserve undeveloped open spaces.

Single-Issue Groups

Some of the most prominent and powerful interest groups in America are “single-issue” groups. These organizations have one thing in common: an extremely narrow and intense focus on a particular issue. The abortion debate, for example, has created single-issue groups on both sides of the argument. The sole focus of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) is to keep abortion legal; the Right to Life Committee would like to see abortion outlawed. Both camps aggressively advocate their positions on Capitol Hill, in state capitols, and through the media.

A Model Interest Group

Many observers consider the American Association of Retired People (AARP) to be the most powerful interest group in the United States. With a membership of nearly 35 million, it's far and away the largest dues-paying association in America. It's also the leader in grassroots lobbying, as it regularly mobilizes its membership to contact their elected officials on various issues.

Over the years, AARP has been influential in shaping scores of federal and state programs and laws geared toward older Americans, including the formation of Medicare and Medicaid, increases in the cost-of-living increases (COLAs) for Social Security benefits, and stricter guidelines for lending to the elderly. Many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle blame AARP for standing in the way of Social Security reform.

In the spring of 2003, actor Charlton Heston stepped down as the president of the National Rifle Association (NRA), one of the most powerful single-interest groups in Washington. Every election cycle, the NRA contributes hundreds of thousands of dollars to elected officials and challengers who believe that the Second Amendment provides an absolute right to bear arms. Most of the NRA's contributions go to Republican candidates.

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