A political interest group is a group of people that have a specific political interest. They organize in an effort to influence laws and government policy. They try to get elected officials to pass laws that will benefit their group. Sometimes these groups are called "special interest groups" or "advocacy groups."
Lobbying and Lobbyists
One of the main ways that interest groups try to influence elected officials is through lobbying. The term "lobbying" comes from a time when citizens would wait in the lobby outside the Congress to talk to the representatives.
Today the people doing the lobbying are called lobbyists. Many lobbyists are highly paid members of the interest group. They work full time trying to convince elected officials to help their group. In order to influence the public officials, lobbyist have meetings, offer legal advice, help to draft laws, and entertain the officials by taking them out to dinner or a show.
Interest groups often rate representatives on how well they think they are supporting their cause. For example, if the interest group was for a strong military they may rate a Congressman low for voting to lower the military budget. At the same time, an antiwar interest group may rate that same Congressman high.
Sometimes interest groups use marketing to influence both voters and public officials. They will run commercials on TV or take out ads in magazines. They may also send out letters through the mail or run an online ad campaign.
Types of Interest Groups
There are thousands of interest groups in the United States. Some of them are very powerful. Most interest groups can be put into one of two categories:
Economic - These groups work to improve the economic benefits (pay, profits, jobs) of the group they represent.
Public Interest - These groups work on issues that they believe will help protect the rights and lives of the general public.
Economic Interest Groups
Agriculture - Some economic interest groups specialize in agriculture. They try to influence legislation that will help out farmers. One example of this is the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF). They have over 5 million members.
Business - Business interest groups try to influence government policies to help out their industry. There are some larger groups like the United States Chamber of Commerce which try to help business in general, but most groups are formed for a specific industry. Examples include the American Trucking Association, the National Association of Realtors, and the American Paper Institute.
Trade Associations - Some interest groups are based on a specific trade or profession. Examples of these include the American Medical Association (doctors) and the American Bar Association (lawyers).
Organized Labor - Labor unions form some of the most powerful interest groups in the country. One example is the AFL-CIO which has over 13 million members.
Environmental - These groups take up the cause to help keep the environment clean and protect animals. Examples include the National Wildlife Federation, the National Audubon Society, and the Sierra Club.
Civil Rights - These organizations lobby to improve the civil rights of different groups of people in the country. Examples include the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), NOW (National Organization for Women), AAPD (American Association of People with Disabilities), and AARP (American Association of Retired People).
Consumer - These groups try to influence the government to protect the consumer from big business. Examples include the Better Business Bureau, Public Citizen, and Consumer Watchdog.