11.2 The Functions of Interest Groups
Interest groups indeed mark the extension of the will of individuals and groups to shape the course of governmental action in a democracy. It is necessary for the people to have ways of exerting influence over the officers chosen to govern them, if the people are to govern themselves. Thus a demand for legislation to improve the condition of industry agriculture or labor, is a flow of power from a society committed to a high degree of self-government. Representation and education are two of the major functions of interest groups.
Interest groups have grown and assumed their legitimate place in government because they supplement the formal process of representation. The American electoral system is geographical, since state legislations and Congressmen are chosen to represent districts. However geography or the number of people within a district, can be not the only basis of representation. The presence of cohesive groups in society such as business, agriculture and labor, each with a sense of identity, is an important basis of representation.
Business interest groups play on important role in the life
of the country. A great deal of federal regulatory legislation was
passed, owing to the pressure of one group seeking protection against
another. For example, the Federal Trade Commission Act, giving power
to define and prevent unfair trade practices, was passed not only
to protect competing businesses but also to protect consumers.
By banding together, farmers could exercise real power over the program of the federal government. Friends of farmers, both in and out of the Congress sought legislation that was aimed at improving the marketing of agricultural products and of credit facilities.
Labor also represents a powerful pressure group affecting federal
legislation. Thus the improvement in the position of organized labor,
resulting from the enactment of New Deal statutes, made the forces
of labor a very imposing power over legislation.
By their large number of members, interest groups can exercise considerable political clout. This also enables them to collect the resources for maintaining a large staff, and lobbyists, to act as a watchdog and monitor the actions of the Congress, the courts and the administration.
Maintenance and expansion of membership is a primary concern
of the interest groups that use direct mail to solicit funds
and increase their members. Issues can also be brought to the notice,
and political agenda can be shaped through direct mail. However
the free-rider problem also arises from those who neither
participate actively in the work of the interest groups, nor make
any financial contributions to the groups. At the same time, however
they manage to profit directly from their work.
Interest groups render a necessary service in a democracy by making valuable information easily available to government agencies as well as to the public in general. For example, interest groups representing racial and nationality groups like the Mexican-American or the Japanese-American, have performed the valuable service of bringing to light the conditions and problems of these people. Further, the Congress is enabled to legislate more wisely, after securing the information provided by lobbyists testifying before congressional committees.
Members of the interest groups are also kept aware of the recent developments in the issues being handled for example the League of Women voters gives information to its members on ballot measures and positions taken by candidates. It also organizes debates and issue forums. The American Petroleum Institute's Basic Petroleum Data Book is considered to be an authoritative source on oil prices and production, throughout the world.