Redistributing Values in Congress: Interest Group Influence under Sub-Optimal Conditions

Article excerpt

Empirical studies on the ability of interest groups to influence legislative voting behavior are mixed. Most legislative researchers, however, have avoided studying culture war issues, such as abortion, school prayer, or homosexuality These issues often exhibit extreme levels of conflict and low levels of public and/or legislative support, precisely those conditions under which interest group influence should be weak. My research fills this gap by examining the influence of lesbian and gay interest groups on legislative voting behavior from the 95th to 104th Congresses. I use an exchange theory of interest group/legislator relationships to construct empirical models of House and Senate voting on lesbian and gay issues. I hypothesize that legislative voting is driven by partisanship, ideology, religious beliefs, and constituency opinion, with interest group influence occurring at the margins. The results of multiple regression analysis suggest that interest groups may be able to influence legislative voting behavior even when conditions are sub-optimal. I suggest that interest group influence on culture war issues is conditional, but may be more visible simply because support has been relatively low.

The fear that so-called "special interests" have excessive influence on public policymaking has become an accepted notion in American politics. Perhaps the greatest fear revolves around the notion that Political Action Committees (PACs) are buying the allegiance of politicians. These fears, however, conflict with social science research. Studies spanning more than a decade suggest interest groups have little or no influence on legislative voting in most circumstances. At minimum, interest group influence appears to be conditioned by context. Influence is more likely under conditions of low issue salience, low partisan or ideological conflict, high issue technicality, low or divided public opposition, and low levels of organized opposition (see Smith 1995).

Furthermore, researchers examining legislative behavior have tended to focus on economic, social welfare, defense, and foreign policy issues, largely ignoring so-called "culture war" issues, such as abortion, English only laws, school prayer, illegal immigration, and homosexuality. While economic policy issues certainly see occasional high levels of conflict and partisanship (Grenzke 1989; Steagall and Jennings 1996), culture war issues are more likely to exhibit and sustain high levels of group conflict, partisanship, and public and elite opposition or division (Hunter 1991)- precisely those characteristics thought to lessen interest group influence.

Moreover, researchers examining culture war issues in Congress have largely ignored the role of interest groups. Studies of abortion roll-call votes, for example, have largely focused on the role of legislator ideology and partisanship (see Chressanthis, Gilbert, and Grimes 1991; Day 1994; Gohmann and Ohsfeldt 1990; Netter 1985; Strickland and Whicker 1986), while overlooking the role of interest groups and constituency interests (but see Gohmann and Ohsfeldt 1994).

Therefore, the literature is weak on both interest groups and culture war issues in Congress-we know little about congressional voting behavior on these issues and even less about interest group influence on culture war issues. The following questions remain to be answered: (1) can we explain congressional voting on culture war issues with the traditional models of congressional voting on other issues, such as economic issues, and (2) does the conditional influence of interest groups apply to issues where conditions for influence nearly always appear to be sub-optimal? Culture war issues, such as homosexuality, should provide an excellent case for investigating these questions.

My work, though preliminary, begins to fill these theoretical and research gaps by exmining the ability of lesbian and gay interest groups to influence legislative voting behavior in the U. …