You deposit money in the bank. It earns interest. At the end of the year, you look at your statement, and you feel confident that you made a worthwhile investment. It's the same thing wit political investments. An interest group spends a great deal of money to publicize its views, and come election time, if its candidate wins, it has made an excellent investment. Of course, the views of a special interest group may not be the views of the majority of voters. In fact, this is quite often the case. Millions of Americans favor gun control, or support a woman's right to choose, but few of these individuals have the kinds of resources at the their disposal as say a group like the National Rifle Association or the many pro-life religious organizations. Such influence peddling poses many questions regarding the nature of American democracy. If public officials are bowing to the will of their biggest contributors, are they truly acting according to the desires of their constituents, or even more importantly, are our officials choosing money over right?
In modern day America, it costs an enormous amount of money to get elected to national or statewide office. In 2002 alone, Democrats and Republicans spent somewhere in the neighborhood of one billion dollars on their various campaigns. This includes both soft and hard money, with the Republicans out-fundraising the Democrats in hard money by more than two to one: $289 million for the Republicans, and $127 million for the Democrats. (Oppel, 2002) Television, radio, print, and Internet advertisements do not come cheap, and it is rare that a candidate can raise the sums necessary from individual supporters alone. Candidates need well-heeled, organized groups to help them fill their war chests. These do not necessarily have to be organizations with extensive grassroots support. They may represent purely local or even very narrow corporate or sociopolitical concerns. Creationism is a big issue in Tennessee, but not in New York. Drilling for oil in National Parks concerns Alaskans but not Ohioans. In general, a candidate's stand on environmental issues is of much greater concern to California voters, than to their counterparts in Texas. What matters in the battle for campaign funds is not the breadth of an organization's support, but the amount of money it can contribute to the candidate or the party.
Thus, a group such as the National Rifle Association has managed for years to block most of the proposed federal regulations regarding gun control. The NRA is indeed a large organization with many members spread across the country, however it is not the number of its members that gives it such great power in the legislative arena. What matters is the fact that it can raise huge sums of money. This money, in the form of generous campaign contributions, and gifts to sitting senators and congressman, enables it to influence government policy out of all proportion to the number of people who either belong to the group or support its policies. That there is widespread opposition to its legislative agenda in many parts of the country is shown by the considerable number of states that have gun control laws that are far stricter than the corresponding federal regulations. An equally good example would be the various pro-life groups that operate in all states of the union. Surely, their support is broader than that enjoyed by the NRA, but again the legislation on the books in many states shows a fairly widespread support for the opposing point-of-view.
Nevertheless, special interest groups wield great influence even in situations where there may be little or no public support for the group's agenda. Large corporations donate huge amounts of money to get special tax breaks and incentives, or to suppress legislation that they deem hostile to their interests. In the period from 1997 to 2000, fifteen senators, including John Ashcroft, John Breaux and Richard Shelby, each received more than $200,000 in contributions from major corporations and trade organization such as General Motors, the Ford Motor Company, Exxon Mobil, and the National Auto Dealers Association. (PIRG, 2000) And what were these contributions for? All of these generous campaign contributions - which in total added up to some $23 million dollars to various congressmen and senators - were directed against the Federal Clean air Act. Specifically, they were designed to thwart a measure requiring the Department of Environmental Protection to designate specific…